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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.


Fungi With a Spark: Exploring the Electrical Signals of Pink Oysters

measuring electrical signals of pink oysters

— Written by Tom DesRosiers, Elsa Fedrigolli & Luka Caric —

As the only fully equipped team, our week started off strong with an advantage compared to the others.

On the first few days, our brains were fried and it was difficult to get started. But by the end of the first week we were tripping with excitement (see what I did there!) about the ideas that we came up with regarding our mushroom experiment. Our project is taking a look at the electric potential in pink oyster mushrooms, and what sorts of stimuli provoke a response. Some of the stimuli may even end the mushroom’s life. But hey, that’s better for us we get to eat it after! This topic hasn’t been explored as deeply as it should have been, but this gives us an amazing opportunity to fill the gaps of science. 

Our entire project is based on Andrew Adamatzky’s paper “On spiking behavior of oyster fungi Pleurotus djamor,” where the author recorded spontaneous high- and low-frequency electrical potentials in fungi. Spontaneous in this context refers to a response in the absence of stimuli. The high- and low-frequency potentials mean the amount of spikes that were recorded per minute (2.6 min for high-frequency and 14 min for low-frequency spikes), as well as their amplitude. (0.88 mV for high-frequency, 1.3 mV for low-frequency). This is a very exciting finding, which we will also be testing in our experiments.


High School Senior Makes an Award-Winning Prosthetic Finger Using Muscle SpikerShield

Kiley Branan's prosthetic finger Muscle Spikershield stepper motor syringe pump
All photos courtesy of Kiley Branan

A pump made of two plastic syringes and a pushing block powered by a stepper motor, one of our Muscle SpikerShields and a 3D-printed base — that’s all that Kiley Branan, a high school senior from Indiana, needed to put together a prototype of a finger that you can open and close by flexing your arm.

If it sounds like a prosthetic device, it’s because that was what Kiley had originally intended it to be. But as she was figuring out the mechanics, the project evolved into a physical therapy tool that can’t replace a limb but can help people who were born without one or have had an amputation to learn kinesthetic and fine motor skills. It is customizable, easy to learn, and best of all — it’s very cheap. With high-tech bionic limbs often being prohibitively expensive, people should at least get a chance to adjust to them at a next-to-nothing cost.

So how exactly does it work? When you’re about to “tell” your muscles to move your limb, your brain sends electrical signals called action potentials to the spinal cord, which then passes on the message to your muscles via motor neurons. But what happens if a person is missing the limb? The message is still being transmitted. What’s missing, apart from the recipient limb, is something to “intercept” the message, gauge and interpret it.

That’s where Kiley’s device comes in. “It detects the nerve signals in the arm when they tell the muscle to move, and then tells the coded computer to push the syringes forward or backward so that they can move the finger. So the device helps detect something that already exists in a person who doesn’t have a finger,” the 18-year-old tells us over Zoom. The device would be helpful on two levels. On the one hand, it would allow for better fine-tuning and customization of the prosthetic limb before it gets made. On the other, it would prepare the person and improve their fine motor skills before they receive their first prosthetic. In a nutshell, Kiley says, it would “make the transition from living without a limb to using a prosthetic as seamless as possible.”