Imagine if humans could “speak” to plants and warn them of impending pest attacks or extreme weather conditions. A team of scientists from the Sainsbury Laboratory at the University of Cambridge (SLCU) wants to turn this science fiction into reality by using light-based messaging to “communicate” with plants.

Initial laboratory experiments with tobacco (Nicotiana benthamiana) have shown that it’s possible to activate plants’ natural defense mechanism (immune response) using light as a stimulus (messenger). Light serves as a universal means of daily communication for humans, such as traffic signals, pedestrian crossings, or the open/closed status of a store.

The research team led by Alexander Jones is using light as a messenger in the development of tools that enable plants to communicate with humans and humans to communicate with plants. Previously, the University of Cambridge team had designed a series of biosensors that use fluorescent light to communicate in real-time what is happening at the cellular level in plants, revealing the dynamics of critical plant hormones. These biosensors can tell us how plants are responding to environmental stresses: plants “speak” to humans. Their latest research, published in PLOS Biology, describes a new tool called “Highlighter,” which uses specific light conditions to activate the expression of a target gene in plants, for example, to trigger their defense mechanisms: humans “speak” to plants.

The concept that humans can communicate with plants on a meaningful level has long captured people’s imagination. If such an ability were possible, it could revolutionize agriculture and our relationship with plants. “If we could alert plants to an impending disease outbreak or a pest attack, plants could then activate their natural defense mechanisms to prevent widespread damage,” Dr. Jones said.

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