Scientists have discovered a new way to control the movement of Venus flytraps, turning them into “biological robots”. Researchers have triggered the plant to snap its leaves shut by sending electrical signals to its sensory cells. The process was executed with such precision that multiple traps were triggered at once. The discovery could have implications for the creation of plant-based robots that could be used for tasks such as environmental monitoring.
The Venus flytrap is a carnivorous plant that is often used to study the mechanics of rapid movement in plants. The “jaws”, which are actually the leaves of the plant, can snap shut to trap a prey such as a fly. Researchers found that by sending a pulse of electricity to the sensory cells within the leaf, they could make the plant snap shut. The signal sent to the plant can even be controlled wirelessly.
The researchers used their technique to control multiple Venus flytraps at once, raising the possibility of using the plants for a range of applications, such as environmental monitoring, where their ability to capture small insects could be harnessed to test for air quality or contamination.
The study raises tantalising prospects for the development of biobots, which are machines created using biological materials. Biobots have the potential to carry out delicate or specialised tasks such as environmental monitoring, due to their versatility and biocompatibility. The researchers are now focusing on how they can scale up the technology to explore the possibility of using multiple plants to carry out more complex tasks. If successful, it could herald a new era of plant-based robots.
Venus flytraps’ leaves are studded with hair-like “trigger hairs” which generate electrical signals when touched. This knowledge of how the plants work could also influence future research into the use of signals being sent to crops to protect them from pests or diseases. The Venus flytrap escape response to mechanical stimulation is triggered when two trigger hairs are touched within a certain period of time, triggering an electrical signal. It is this characteristic that makes the plant an ideal model for this research.
This latest study opens up new possibilities for the continued development of biobots and soft robots, used for delicate and highly specialised work. If this technology can be scaled up successfully, it could be an important proof-of-concept for future use of plant-based robots in environmental monitoring, crop management and medicinal purposes.