Plant Electricity

A plant is not only stuff with mass, nor only chemistry, nor only biology. You may look at a plant as well from an electrical point of view. Bio-electronics is an emerging way to better understand the plant’s world. For example, researchers –among others at the Dutch Koppert Biological Systems – explore ways to strengthen the robustness of plants and their resistance against disease and plagues. Ed Moerman is focussing on this domain. He likes to quote Albert Szent-Gyorgyi:

WHAT DRIVES LIFE IS A LITTLE ELECTRIC CURRENT, KEPT UP BY THE SUNSHINE. ALL THE COMPLEXITIES OF INTERMEDIARY METABOLISM ARE JUST ‘MINOR’ ADDITIONAL PHENOMENA.

Moerman starts at the very beginning: with photosynthesis. He even calls that plant grower a ‘chlorofyll-manager’. Sunlight, entering a plant leaf, excites electrons and this process may induce some fluorescence and a little loss of heath, but it mainly stores energy and delivers it to other parts of the plant by photochemistry. He mentions a series of electrical parameters that are relevant in plant production systems, like Ampere, Volt and Ohm (impedance), and how they relate to pH, redox potential, Brix and frequency.

A list of electronic parameters in the plant. Source: Ed Moerman.

These parameters offer an extra indicator for the health of the plant. “All the magic that we know is in the transfer of electrons. Reduction (gaining electrons) and oxidation (the loss of electrons) combine to form redox-chemistry, which contains the majority of chemical reactions. As electrons jump from atom to atom, they carry energy with them, and that transfer of energy is what makes all life on earth possible.” A farmer who understands these electrical signals, will complement his knowledge of the more familiar hydraulic and chemical signals in the plant. This complementarity is shown in the picture below.

The combination of electric with hydraulic and chemical signals in a plant gives a more complete picture of the plant’s health. Source: Ed Moerman.

In the article “Long­distance plant signaling pathways in response to multiple stressors: The gap in knowledge”, Bauerle (2016) from Cornell University, mentions a series of electrical signals in plants: ‘action potential’, ‘slow wave potential’, ‘system potential’ and ‘wound potential’. Each one of them has its own preferred location in and routing through the plant.