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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.


Update: Chilean Internship Plant Conduction Velocity Project Summary y Adiós (Por Ahora)

Global meeting. Me (upper left – Chile), Étienne (scientific advisor – upper right – Germany), Patricio (my undergraduate thesis advisor (lower left – Chile), and Tim (my supervisor at Backyard Brains – South Korea). These are our thinking faces, not our mad faces.

— Written by Carla Contreras Mena —

Hello! Carla Contreras Mena from Santiago, Chile, here again. Welcome to the conclusion of my work during my internship with Backyard Brains.

Experiment Update

In the last few months, I’ve had to study more about plants. Why? Because, In my daily life in the laboratory, I’m not very familiar with the chemistry of plants, how to take care of them, and other characteristics. But, it’s always very interesting to learn new things.

Maybe you remember this picture from the last blog (“Backyard Brains welcomes newest Chilean Intern: Conduction Velocity in Different Plants”):

Carla's plants

Why am I reminding you? My home garden currently looks a bit different: More plants, and they grew!

Carla's plants update: they grew!

In Chile during this time of the year it’s summer, although during January the temperatures went up a lot. This caused the plants to have a hard time, however, many of them survived and are still giving a lot of data (at least).

The current plants are Chilean Chile, Ornamental Chile, Basil, Creeping Inchplant, Argentian Dollar, Hierba Buena, Mint, Rosemary, Ruda, Tomato, and the Venus Flytrap. You can see my numbers breakdown below, lots of recordings: 192!


Backyard Brains Welcomes Newest Chilean Intern: Conduction Velocity in Different Plants

conduction velocity in different plants
Tim and I talking about our experiments at the Peruvian Restaurant “Ajicito” over Ceviche, Maracuya juice and pisco sour

— Written by Carla Contreras Mena —

Hello, I’m Carla Contreras Mena, a student of Biochemistry at the University of Santiago of Chile (which we locally call Usach). I currently work in a Neuroscience Laboratory with professor Dr. Patricio Rojas, where we are investigating the neurophysiological difference of electrical activity in the mouse hippocampus between a control and a model of autism. Here is a picture of my research:

mouse hippocampus

Section of the hippocampus, specifically in the dentate gyrus of a C57BL/6 strain mouse; E = stimulating electrode; R = recording electrode

In search of an internship for my degree, my professor recommended Backyard Brains. In my first meeting with Backyard Brains, I listened a bit about this interesting way to learn electrophysiology in plants and how a simplified amplifier works to learn and teach at the same time.

I decided to learn more about it, so I accepted the offer letter!

First Steps