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High School Students Publish a Paper on Plant Physiology in a Notable Journal

high schoolers from chile doing plant experiments
The students doing the experiments. Photos by Abraham Martínez Gutiérrez, official photographer of the high school.

— Written by Tim Marzullo —

In an article we previously published in June 2022 about our scientific paper that dealt with play behavior in fish, I concluded at the end of the article:

I think it is possible for novices and high school students to publish papers (and it is the dream and goal of our team)… That is why we are planning an experiment. We want to publish with a school in Santiago, Chile, collaborating with second and third year high school students. We are collecting data on electrical signals in plants… If it works, we will tell you…

Dear readers, 21 months after writing this, the day has arrived. We did it! Our paper recently appeared in the academic journal “Plant Signaling and Behavior” about our experiments in electrophysiology in plants, with 5 high school students as the first authors. You can read the paper here.

A library of electrophysiological responses in plants - a model of transversal education and open science
The beginning of the published paper, with high school students in the front line

Electrical signals in plants? What? Yes, it is understudied and often misunderstood, but plants do have signals similar to the electrical signals we have in our hearts, muscles, and brain. However, they are much slower (1,000-15,000 times slower). But what are they for? In the famous examples of the venus flytrap and the sensitive mimosa, the electrical signals coordinate their fast movements, but electrical signals also exist in plants that do not move quickly, such as tomatoes, chili peppers, basil, etc.

One of the functions of electrical signals in plants is as an alarm signal. For example, if a herbivore is eating a plant, an electrical signal passes through the branches saying “we are under attack” and the plant can synthesize bitter compounds so that the leaves taste bitter. A plant cannot escape when under attack, and it has the problem that it is “stuck in place forever” (i.e., it cannot run away from a threat, or fight physically), but there are protection systems and defenses (thorns, poisons, production of bitter compounds, etc.).

Dear reader, the day has arrived. We did it! Our paper about our experiments in electrophysiology in plants recently appeared in the academic journal “Plant Signaling and Behavior,” with 5 high school students as the first authors.

As electrophysiology in plants is understudied, we wanted to further investigate electrical signals in plants that do not necessarily move rapidly. And with that idea, we began to work on an ambitious project with the (high school) Colegio Alberto Blest Gana (CABG) in San Ramón, Santiago.

But before discussing the results, we must give a little more context about the scientific publication process.


Amateur Scientist Tries to Hack Human-Human Interface to Treat His Own Spinal Cord Injury

Amateur scientist Gianni Garulli in his lab, trying to hack Human-Human Interface to treat his spinal cord injury

We’ve been doing it for 10 years already: connecting two humans so that one uses their own brain signals to control the other one’s limb. But how about hooking up two limbs of a single human so that one limb can control the other?

This is exactly what Gianni Garulli, a hardware and firmware developer from Lonato del Garda, Italy, tried to do. Having suffered a spinal cord injury that affected his legs, one more heavily than the other, he was on the lookout for treatment, even if it required some serious tinkering.

So when his daughter Elisa came across our booth at the FENS 2022 in Paris, one thing caught her eye: the Human-Human Interface (HHI) and the idea of neuroplasticity. Christmas was nearing and with it, their old tradition of spending holiday time doing projects together. As it happened, the perfect Christmas gift was there for the taking.

Elisa’s own background helped too. As a PhD student at Charité University Hospital, Berlin, she studies neurotechnology and holds an MSc in biotech. Moreover, she used to be part of O.W.L. (Open Wet Lab), a biohacking association committed to bringing science out of labs and making it more accessible to everyone. And that, reader, may ring a bell or two.


The Slime Mold Chronicles: Cracking the (Intelligent?) Behavior of the Brainless

y maze for slime molds
Our Y-maze with food on one side and nothing on the other. Guess where they went!

— Written by Amanda Putti & Milica Milosevic —

Well we made it! We’re at the final week of the BYB Fellowship! We faced many challenges throughout this project and had to pivot in order to get results, but we are happy where it ended.

To give updates on our progress, let’s first start where we left off 3 weeks ago. Using a blue light, we took one picture of the slime mold every minute over 24 hours. This allowed us to string the pictures together and make some great time lapse videos! After this, we were able to analyze the videos using a program in Python and create a special kind of video which converts yellow slime branches into lines of directed growth – skeletonized growth video. This was really helpful for understanding how the slime mold grows, explores new areas, and creates a network. But we also think that there’s more to it, and that behavioral analysis opens a lot of questions in the field of biophysics and is a project for itself.

We were very excited to get this imaging. However, we then made the decision to keep the rest of our experiments in the dark and in that manner reduce the amount of imaging done. Slime mold prefers to grow in the dark, and we wanted to make sure light wasn’t inhibiting growth in our experiments.

This means we were more focused on quantifying decision making rather than behavior. We set up a series of three types of experiments and ran many, many tests. (The order of explaining them isn’t coordinated with the chronological order of our work, but makes more sense this way!)

1. Solving Mazes

We wanted to test the ability of slime molds to choose a path that leads them to food, so we set up the easiest of mazes – a Y maze where there was food on one side of the Y and nothing on the other side of the Y (see photo above). Slime molds showed us that they have no intentions of staying hungry and that they’re doing just fine when it comes to finding the food source.

Then we wanted to make things more complicated for them, so we constructed a specific T maze – one side of the letter T was longer and had a food source, and the other was a lot shorter and had an object as a mechanical stimulus (we’ll get more into the mechanical stimulation in a bit). The idea was to check if they can see the difference between the food and something that isn’t food and if they are gonna choose the shorter path towards the no-food region. So, we tried to confuse them, but failed at it –  they knew where the food was and grew in that direction almost every time!