Posts Tagged ‘Avatar’

So, yup, Cameron’s Avatar and Nickolodeon Avatar, the Last Airbender (the movie never existed. Period), actually had a common point: veggie communication networks. Yay!

In the first case, Na’vi were already physiologically equipped to connect to the Hometrees. In ATLA, both the Avatar (Aang and Korra incarnations) and Toph use the roots of an ancient Banyan Grove Tree to gain information about what happens on a different part of the world. In both cases, the overall idea was that the world, just like the trees, was one living organism where everything was connected.

Actually, the idea is not as crazy as it might sound. For a time, scientists have been aware of a mutual beneficial relationship between plants and (mycorrhizal) fungi, that grow around their roots and are known to promote overall plant growth. At the moment, they are evaluating whether they allow plants to communicate with each other to warn about coming insects attacks and, hence, prepare their chemical defense systems.

Scientists actually proposed that communication occurs through the release and detection of information-carrying chemicals that traverse the soil matrix through mycorrhizal networks (any brain analogy here?). In this sense, fungi, which are highly interconnected underground via their mycelia, conform a sort of plant Internet.

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Image taken from Biology Pictures

This theory was tested by researchers from the University of Aberdeen, the James Hutton Institute and Rothamsted Research. They basically grew multiple sets of bean plants in groups. Some of these plants were connected viamycorrhizal networks, whereas others were kept purposefully isolated from the rest. Then, researchers infested single plants with aphids -a damaging insect-, and found out that clean plants connected to infected ones by the mycorrhizae built up their chemical defenses (i.e. release a chemical attractor for wasps, who feed on pesky aphids), whereas unconnected ones showed no chemical response.

There is also some evidence on airborne plant communication, i.e. veggie WiFi, so we can at least say that both Cameron and Konietzko did their homework right in this case.

Source: Ecology Letters

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Ever wanted to grow your own TARDIS?

Breeding electronics is not a new idea in science fiction. Not only the Doctor’s most faithful companion is indeed a mix of organic and non-organic material that can be grown out of a piece of itself. Moya, in Farscape, is also a bio-mechanoid, in this case born from another Leviathan. And so are cylon raiders, from Galactica, the Shadows’ and Vorlons’ ships and the White Stars from Babylon 5. In Hyperion (1989), Dan Simmons also describes enormous tree-ships that are grown to move between the stars. And, actually, the trees in Cameron’s Avatar work like an enormous interconnected circuit.

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It’s no surprise, then, that people have been trying to grow, at least partially, their own circuits using bio-stuff. For example, Jean-Baptiste Labrune of Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs came with the idea of Orgatronics, that combine transducers and microcontrollers with organic materials, mostly wood,

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Why would these circuits be interesting? First of all, you don’t build them, you grow them. They would be also way easier to recycle. Plus, according to their creators, they could use alternative power sources. Of course, we’ve got the sun, but let’s not forget that plants present potential differences that may provide some feeding to low power consumption electronics. For example, see how Texas MSP 430 microcontroller can be fed (up to a point) with almost any citric.

There have also been projects to feed conventional circuitry with, e.g. the potential difference created by tree root acidification, so, for example, trees could sense heat and trigger alarms in case of wildfires. However, electronics were conventional, even though they used the tree for power. It would be way better if the trees could grow just so, right?

This is, for example, the work of Andrew Adamatzky at the University of the West of England in Bristol. Based on studies about the electrical impedance of cucumbers and olive trees, he has focused on lettuce seedlings to create some sort of organic wire. The problem with organic stuff is that, unlike metals, it is typically not a good conductor for electricity. Adamatzky placed the seedlings across a 10 mm gap in a circuit, passed 1 uA current through it and measured impedance and potential over 10 minutes. Turns out his stuff behave like a 2.76 MOhms resistor, way higher than metals, but still well under the resistance of a body. He plans to use the seedlings to connect biosystems with silicon devices. The main challenge Adamatzky is facing is how to control the growth of the seedlings, which is in no way well structured. However, given that the resistance of materials change with factors like, for example, temperature, these thingies could be used to create fully organic sensors.

Still a long way to go, but moving in the right direction.

Source (partially): MIT Technology Review

One of the most stunning scenes in Life of Pi in my humble opinion is how the night sea comes alive with thousands of lights. We are not discussing if some guy could possibly survive a boat trip with a hungry tiger, but … what about natural underwater lights?

The idea is not new at all. Already, in the 1959 release of Journey to the Center of Earth Count Saknussemm  finds out during their descent that a luminescent algae renders artificial light unnecessary. In Avatar, they extend this property to trees and whatnot.

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Avatar may be well over the line, but Life of Pi is not that far from reality. In fact, the glowing sea is a classic surfer’s favorite observed on a semi-regular basis since at least 1901 in San Diego. According to biologists, it is caused by a massive red tide of bioluminescent phytoplankton called Lingulodinium polyedrum. These thingies react to stress, caused by crashing waves, surf boards or someone splashing around, by emitting light, so this is probably the basis for Life of Pi.

Furthermore, not only there are indeed luminescent algae in the sea, but they can also be used to provide eco-friendly streetlight, as company FermentAlg has already proved. They have manufactured algae lamps that don’t require electricity. While there is daylight, the lamps recharge their batteries via photosynthesis. In fact, they are reported to absorb 150 to 200 times more CO2 than a tree. At night, they glow. A similar process has been employed by researchers at Stanford to obtain minuscule amounts of electricity from plant photosynthesis.

The most obvious drawback of these lamps, as anyone who ever owned a fish tank certainly knows, would be to keep tanks clean enough that they don’t go opaque. Until we get our city shining like Atlantis, Wikihow teaches us how to grow luminescent algae at home.