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Backstage of TED 2017: Plant Electrophysiology

On April 24, the co-founder of Backyard Brains, Greg Gage, returned to the TED stage to give another intriguing talk that included live scientific experiments: this time, he showed that plants, like animals, can use electrical signals to make rapid movements. Take a peek backstage where we interviewed him on the whole experience:


What was the most difficult part of doing an experiment with plants live on the stage?

GG: Two things.  1) Testing with Plants.  The TED talk was in early spring, and we needed to test everything in the winter months on summer plants that do not bloom until after TED.  So we got to work building a greenhouse in the office and our local Downtown Home and Garden (who housed four of our plants in their greenhouse! Thanks!), growing seedlings to mature plants so we could test our ideas within a few weeks.  2) Time pressure.We have only done experiments in lab settings and a few times in long talks/conferences when time wasn’t an issue.   The TED stage is live and limited on minutes… not only to get the idea across, but to do live experiments.  We had a lot of unknowns to tackle before we agreed to the talk.  54 questions to be exact.  Can we do quick recordings and switch across different plants? How do we move the plants to the stage without disturbing them? What are temperatures ranges in the theatre, and will the plants be responsive given those ranges? Can we bring our plants through customs in another country? Not to mention the Plant to Plant Interface which wasn’t invented yet!



How does it compare to doing experiments in a school classroom?

GG: In the classroom you have time to make mistakes and use them as learning experiences with the students. The TED clock is less forgiving. We had 5 live experiments to do in 7 minutes.  We methodically removed the chance of failure by testing in the lab until we were 90% certain that they would work.  

You developed a Plant-to-Plant interface. How does it work, and how did you come up with this idea? What was your inspiration?

GG: This was a fun idea playing on the idea of the ubiquitousness of spikes.  Our human-to-human interface showed a similar idea with EMG activity.  We first thought of a venus flytrap to flytrap interface.  But then thought it would be more visual to get the mimosas to move.  But would they move on stimulation?  Our labs in Chile, Brazil and Michigan all pitched into the investigation.  It turns out it worked… and worked beautifully.



What literature was involved in preparing the talk and experiment?

GG: We read every scientific paper we could find on the Venus flytrap and Mimosa Pudica (not an exhaustive list…. in the low dozens).Electricity was known to occur inside the Venus Flytrap as early as 1873, but the action potential wasn’t reported until 1950 (Stuhlman & Darden, Science), and it wasn’t until 1961 that it was known that it took two action potentials to close the trap (also a Science paper).  I enjoyed reading the early experiments by Charles Darwin especially. I wasn’t aware how much he turned to plants later in his career.  He wrote an entire book on plants that eat insects.

Why did you choose to specifically talk about plant electrophysiology? What does it represent for science education?

GG: Exotic plants are exciting to talk about no matter what, but the fact that they have these silent secret messages passed through electricity was too much to pass up.  Through plants, we can learn a lot about our own neurons…and do so in an engaging way, which is important for science education.



Do plants have brains?

GG: Ha!  No they do not, sadly.  I wish.  But they do have cells that share properties with our neurons,.

Why did you specifically chose Mimosas (Mimosa pudica) and Venus FlyTraps (Dionaea muscipula)

GG: These are fast moving plants.  So you can see an obvious behavior in the plant that corresponds with the action potential generation. It’s not known actually if all plants use electricity, but it is thought so.  It’s just not as easy to show convincing electrophysiology in live demos in more slowly moving plants.



What are your thoughts on the inner clock of the venus flytrap?

GG: There are a few theories out there, but the evidence hasn’t fully satisfied any of them… so I think the jury is still out.  We have formed our own theories about how it works from our daily recordings the past few months… but I want to be sure to run more controls and experiments before we say what that is.



Tell us about your preparation for the talk. What was it like?

GG: 90% of the prep was on the hardware, software, configuration of the electrodes, and figuring out international plant law (we are now experts in the latter).I didn’t start piecing the talk together until once we knew what parts we had to work with. Remember, we were only confident of 2 of the 5 experiments when we found out we were going to speak. But I love that period of true focus and creativity.  It’s such a pleasure to be able to tackle a large problem and figure it out.  We had a great team of people that made it possible.

What was the best part of TED 2017?

GG: The people you meet.  Everyone that attends is intellectually curious and wants to know more about a lot of subjects.  And there are a lot of experts there.  I had late night talks with the hardware developer of Google Home about microphone theory, then another about laws that are being passed through congress to protect phone privacy as immigrants and visitors come through customs.



What was your favorite talk? Why?

GG: I had two.  The poet David Whyte and the group OK Go gave two talks that spoke to the creativity process in very different ways.  David broke down how he derived a few of his poems in beautiful detail through conversations with his daughter. It was interesting (and honest) to hear the story, the thoughts, then the poem. OK Go explained a different approach, something that speaks to me about Backyard Brains.  Their approach to making their amazing videos was to play in a creative sandbox of the environment and see what works, then make the project about what works best. Less pre-planning, / pre-staging and  more just playing/prototyping while doing it.  That’s what we did on the plant talk.  We knew the talk was about plant electrophysiology.  We had the raw materials: plants and amplifiers, and we had to come up with something creative within that space.

Are there any peculiarities regarding doing live experiments on plants that surprised you? As plant electrophysiology is a bit more temperamental than vertebrate electrophysiology.

GG: I was surprised at how reliable we were able to make these famously fickle plants. From all of the variables we tested for the mimosas: temperature, humidity, light, time of day… we found out that the only real thing that mattered was a good light source and that the plant was “awake” in the day. We tested in the office with air conditioning on for days at 61 ºF (16 ºC),  pushing a little on the chilly side for the plant, but mimicking possibly cold theatre conditions, and it didn’t matter. The mimosas were still responsive..  The flytraps had to be healthy, but little else mattered as well.



For more on Plant Electrophysiology, check our Venus Flytrap and Mimosa Pudica Experiments!


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