For much of human history, people have managed plant growth in the same way – take the plant outside, put it in the ground and wait for it to grow. But what if, rather than doing this, we could give a plant managed instructions? In essence we would talk to the plants. Then, not only could we tell plants what to produce and how much to produce but do so by communicating in a language that they can understand.
According to new research, we can get a plant to do exactly what we want by using a vocabulary of commands via light-emitting diodes, or LEDs.
This sounds like science fiction, but it isn’t. At the recent Science Writers 2013 conference in Gainesville, FL, Dr. Kevin M. Folta (pictured, right) of the University of Florida showed us his vision of growing plants in the future. In this world, there will be automatic lighting systems and reflective surfaces that use varying colors of light to fine-tune a plant’s nutrition, flavor, texture and many other attributes.
Photoreceptor chemistry lets researchers manage many aspects of a plant’s life and growth can be. Now that inexpensive Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) are available in many wavelengths, Folta’s lab has found ways to use light to manipulate gene expression and dynamically improve nutrition and flavor, control pests, time of flowering and ripening and slow spoilage.
Plants as Environmentally Modified Organisms (EMOs)
Folta says that all plants have a certain genetic potential determined by their genetic makeup, and that we can change that genetic potential either by selection or genetic modification. What happens to a plant largely depends on its environment and by manipulating this environment we can reach the potential determined by a plant’s genetic blueprint.
Folta describes plants as Environmentally Modified Organisms that are able to adapt to change or express their genetic potential based on the signals they receive in their environment. Instead of manipulating physical variables, such as spacing between plants, Folta seeks to make photomorphogenesis changes – to induce changes in plant growth, quality, texture and flavor by using light.
This idea works because plants have three receptors that respond to different parts of the spectrum; the phytochrome pigment responds to the red part of the spectrum, cryptochrome responds to green and blue light and photropin which responds to blue light and controls plant growth.
The idea of using different colors of light to control plant growth is not new, but to understand why it works, Folta says we must understand that different adaptions in an organism are the result of different genes being expressed. In much the same way a plant grown in darkness grows long and tall as it tries to find light, the same type of plant will grow differently outside when exposed to light. They are both genetically identical but the genes that control growth are switched on or off in response to light.
This is the basis behind Folta’s research. By using different parts of the spectrum, we give a plant inputs or instructions that result in predictable biochemical events to lead to tangible outcomes that can be controlled. In a way, the plant becomes a machine or hardware and light becomes the software in which we can program this machine.
Creating the One Plant Salad
Chefs are constantly looking for ways to combine colors, flavors and textures in the foods they cook. Folta showed the audience some examples, using the same type of lettuce, where they have achieved changes in texture and coloration. Researchers grew lettuce using red light to show hints of purples while the same plant under predominantly blue light showed a stronger response in purple coloration.
This means rather than diversifying or growing five types of lettuce, a small farmer can grow one type of lettuce and change the color his plants receive to create lettuces with different flavors, colors and textures. The resulting changes in coloration and texture have been used to create the one lettuce salad, something which Folta showed the audience. While they haven’t yet produced lettuce with different flavors, Folta believes this should not be difficult using this process.
Improving Nutrition and Taste by Using Light
Folta also says that this process can improve the nutritional value of plants. Work with red russian kale shows a tremendous increase in the level of antioxidants by modulating the level of red pigments found in the plant. Thus by not adding chemicals or changing genetics, we can use light to get plants to give us what we need.
How Do LEDs Work?
Though the knowledge of using light to control plants is not new, it has only become practical with advances in LED technology. LEDs are made up of semiconducting materials doped with impurities to create a p-n junction, the interface or boundary where two types of semiconductor exist in a single crystal.
Each material contains a different type of charge carrier–the p-type material contains “holes” or the absence of electrons and the n-type material contains an abundance of electrons. When a potential is applied across an LED’s junction, charge carriers move and combine at the junction to release energy in the form of a photon.The wavelength of the light the LED emits (and thus its color) depends on the material’s bandgap. This means that the color of light is highly monochromatic – or it emits only one color.
As a LED’s color depends on the choice of semiconducting materials, it means that these devices can be specially tuned to interact with the various plant receptors to get a response. We can, for example, either design or buy off the shelf red LEDs that can interact with the phytochrome molecule directly. Previously this was unfeasible as LEDs were expensive and produced very little light – but today, not only are LEDs cheap, and getting more so, but recent advances have also seen an increase in light output.
This ability to produce a lot of light at low cost makes LEDs the ideal device to control and communicate with plants.
During the final Q&A session, attendees asked Folta whether this technology could produce allergen-free plants and fruits. While that is presently not a focus of his research, he says could be possible to do so. As the allergens typically found in foods are specific proteins to which the body reacts, they may be able to switch off expression of certain genes so that the plant doesn’t produce the allergenic proteins.
According to Folta, this research is of tremendous interest to companies who are seeking to maximize the genetic potential of their crops without the need for chemicals or genetic modification. As many types of crops and growing spaces are amendable to this treatment, there is the potential to convert almost any space to grow crops both efficiently and cheaply and thereby reduce environmental impact.
LEDs and the Language of Plants
This becomes more and more important in a world with a growing global population that is increasingly seeing arable land growing more and more scarce. By understanding the language of plants, we may one day write the software needed to efficiently grow cheap and nutritious food for a growing world anywhere.