If a plant doesn’t get enough water, it’s likely to die. Most of us who have tried our hands at gardening are familiar with this simple fact, but over-watering can also be a problem. In vineyards, too much water can cause vines to grow bigger leaves, rather than larger, tastier grapes. Winemakers, therefore, have a very real interest in finding the perfect balance to create that perfect vintage, and a new biology-mimicking microchip could be just the thing.In the past, commercial farmers have relied on soil sensors to tell them when it’s time to irrigate their crops, but as Cornell University professor and plant physiology expert Alan Lakso points out, these sensors “….measure water in the soil which is sort of indirect, because you’re not harvesting the soil. You are harvesting the plant.” To solve that problem, Lakso and a team at Cornell designed a chip to be embedded inside plants that is capable of delivering more accurate and up to the minute information about plants’ water needs. And, as Modern Farmer reports, the team looked to plant physiology when designing the chip:
Plant leaves have tiny pores filled with water brought up from the roots; that water evaporates through the leaves’ membranes. The chip also has a cavity filled with water and a membrane through which water evaporates. As the plant’s water depletes, so does the sensor’s. When the level dips, the chip sends a signal to a data logger via a wire or a wireless transmitter to be interpreted and stored. The farmer is tipped off that it’s time to water the plants. When crops are quenched, the chip will replenish its moisture, too, and the cycle will begin anew.
These chips will cost around $5 a pop, so don’t expect them to become industry standard anytime soon. But these kinds of weddings between the natural and the technological, the biologic and the electronic, are going to become increasingly sophisticated and disruptive in the coming years. Whether these advances tell us precisely how much water crops need (and in the process eliminate wasteful over-watering), or allow us to harness the sun’s energy more efficiently (say, by growing actual products in a field, cutting out the need for some manufacturing processes), they’ll make our agriculture both more productive and more sustainable. The green movement has a Luddite fear of this field of technology, preferring not to blur the boundaries between the natural and the human world. For Gaia’s sake, let’s hope they get over that, and get on board the biotech bandwagon.