A few days later, the team demonstrated that the wires had electrical conductivity. Since then, the researchers have also created self-assembling series of transistors, one of the fundamental elements of a sensor network.
"If we combine the sensors with delivery devices, we could make a neuronal system to record and sense and regulate the physiology of the plant," Berggren said.
So far, the researchers have made electrical networks up to 8 inches (20 cm) long, and have used slightly different techniques to embed electrical circuits in plants with a different structure, such as celery, Berggren said.
The new embedded sensor network could one day be used to prevent flowers from blooming when a frost is on the way. It could also be used to preferentially improve a plant's productivity when weather conditions are right, Berggren said.
Of course, scientists routinely use genetic engineering to alter the water demands, flowering process and hardiness of plants. Plant genetic modification is safe, well-understood and extremely easy to do. So why go to the trouble of embedding electronics for the same purpose?
Changing some traits, such as flowering time, may be too disruptive to an ecosystem if done permanently, especially if those changes could propagate through forests and fields, Berggren. But an electronic switch would be reversible, he said. Ultimately, Berggren sees plants of the future combining both genetic engineering and electrical sensors, he said.
For food crops, scientists would have to show that organic polymers don't make it into the fruits, seeds or edible portions of the plant. And ultimately, the team hopes to use biological chemicals, such as chlorophyll, to create the electronic circuits, bypassing the potential for environmental contamination as a result, Berggren said.
"We can refine materials in plants to become semiconductors and conductors, and put them back in plants to become devices," Berggren said.
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