Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

If plants generate magnetic fields, they're not saying

Date:
April 7, 2011
Source:
University of California - Berkeley
Summary:
Physicists are using some of the world's most sensitive magnetic field detectors to determine whether plants, like animals, produce magnetic fields. Sensitive magnetometers now can monitor brain or heart activity in humans, but scientists want to know whether plants also generate small fields during rapid processes. Their failure to detect biomagnetism in the world's largest flower during its hot flashes sets an upper limit for plants.

A titan arum nicknamed "Trudy" is fully opened after flowering in June 2009 in the UC Botanical Garden. Two sensors of a magnetomer are visible to the lower left.
Credit: Eric Corsini, UC Berkeley

Searching for magnetic fields produced by plants may sound as wacky as trying to prove the existence of telekinesis or extrasensory perception, but physicists at the University of California, Berkeley, are seriously looking for biomagnetism in plants using some of the most sensitive magnetic detectors available.

In an article that appeared this week in the Journal of Applied Physics, the UC Berkeley scientists describe the instruments they used to look for minuscule magnetic fields around a titan arum -- the world's largest flower -- during its brief bloom, the interference from local BART trains and traffic that bedeviled the experiment, and their ultimate failure to detect a magnetic field.

They established, however, that the plant generated no magnetic field greater than a millionth the strength of the magnetic field surrounding us here on Earth.

Why look for biomagnetism in plants?

"There is a lot of activity now by scientists studying biomagnetism in animals, but not in plants," said Dmitry Budker, UC Berkeley professor of physics. "It is an obvious gap in science right now."

In animals, for example, activity in the heart and brain produce tiny magnetic fields that can be measured by sensitive magnetometers.

"We feel like this is a first step in an interesting direction that we would like to pursue," he added.

Budker spends most of his time developing extremely sensitive magnetic field detectors -- in particular, atomic magnetometers based on nonlinear magnetooptical rotation (NMOR). These devices can measure magnetic fields as low as 10 femtotesla, nearly a billion times lower than Earth's magnetic field at the surface, which is usually between 20 and 50 microtesla, depending on the location.

Magnetic noise in the laboratory initially led the Budker team to the University of California Botanical Garden, which provided an isolated space for them to test their magnetometers. There, the researchers, including graduate student Eric Corsini, encountered the garden's famed titan arum (Amorphophallus titanium), a plant that every few years sends up a tall, thick stalk covered with thousands of small flowers enveloped by one large, flower-like calyx. During its brief flowering, the plant gives off a powerful odor of rotting flesh to attract the carrion beetles and flesh flies that pollinate it.

"This giant, skirt-like thing opens fairly quickly, over an hour or two, and the plant starts to heat up and get really warm, and then gives off this odor that is strongest for the first 12 hours," said Paul Licht, director of the UC Botanical Garden. "By the end of 24 hours, all the real action is over; the pollination cycle has a very brief window to succeed."

Because magnetic fields are created by moving electrical charges, such as a current of electrons, the researchers thought that rapid processes in the plant during the rapid heating might involve flowing ions that would create a magnetic field. In the titan arum, the rapid heating raises the plant temperature as high as 20 to 30 Celsius (70-85 degrees Fahrenheit).

"In principle, there shouldn't be a fundamental difference between animals and plants in this respect, but as for which plants might produce the highest magnetic fields, that is a question for biologists," Budker said.

In June 2009, one of the garden's arums was ready to erupt, so the Budker group, headed by Corsini, set up a sensitive, commercial magnetometer next to the plant in a hothouse and monitored it continually. During the day, visitors entering the hothouse generated magnetic signals, and the BART trains several miles away created .05 microtesla signals periodically.

"We were most disappointed in not being able to put a tighter tolerance on our measurement, because we couldn't find a way to cancel out the local ambient magnetic field noise," Corsini said.

He and Budker expect that they can increase their sensitivity by a factor of 10 or 100, however.

"We haven't given up," Corsini said. "The next step is to see whether we can get hold of a smaller plant and perhaps shield it from outside magnetic fields far from public viewing. So far, biomagnetism is a fun side project for me, but if we were to see something …."

"The hope is that, next time one flowers, we're going to get it," Licht said.

People who want their own titan arum can purchase offspring, some now three to four feet high, at the botanical garden. While these plants make fascinating and easy houseplants, however, the owner should be prepared to move out of the house for a night when the plant ultimately flowers, Licht said.

The work was part of a project funded by the Office of Naval Research and the U.S. Department of Energy through the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Coauthors with Budker, Corsini and Licht are Victor Acosta, Nicolas Baddour and Brian Patton of UC Berkeley's physics department; James Higbie, a former UC Berkeley doctoral student now at Bucknell University; Brian Lester of the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology, who was a summer visitor at the time of the experiments; and Mark Prouty of Geometrics Inc. in San Jose, maker of the magnetometer employed in the study.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of California - Berkeley. The original article was written by Robert Sanders. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Eric Corsini, Victor Acosta, Nicolas Baddour, James Higbie, Brian Lester, Paul Licht, Brian Patton, Mark Prouty, Dmitry Budker. Search for plant biomagnetism with a sensitive atomic magnetometer. Journal of Applied Physics, 2011; 109 (7): 074701 DOI: 10.1063/1.3560920

Cite This Page:

University of California - Berkeley. "If plants generate magnetic fields, they're not saying." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 April 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110407151650.htm>.
University of California - Berkeley. (2011, April 7). If plants generate magnetic fields, they're not saying. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 25, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110407151650.htm
University of California - Berkeley. "If plants generate magnetic fields, they're not saying." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110407151650.htm (accessed July 25, 2014).

Share This




More Plants & Animals News

Friday, July 25, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Boy Attacked by Shark in Florida

Boy Attacked by Shark in Florida

Reuters - US Online Video (July 24, 2014) An 8-year-old boy is bitten in the leg by a shark while vacationing at a Florida beach. Linda So reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Goma Cheese Brings Whiff of New Hope to DRC

Goma Cheese Brings Whiff of New Hope to DRC

Reuters - Business Video Online (July 24, 2014) The eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, mainly known for conflict and instability, is an unlikely place for the production of fine cheese. But a farm in the village of Masisi, in North Kivu is slowly transforming perceptions of the area. Known simply as Goma cheese, the Congolese version of Dutch gouda has gained popularity through out the region. Ciara Sutton reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Tyrannosaur Pack-Hunting Theory Aided By New Footprints

Tyrannosaur Pack-Hunting Theory Aided By New Footprints

Newsy (July 24, 2014) A new study claims a set of prehistoric T-Rex footprints supports the theory that the giant predators hunted in packs instead of alone. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Bill Gates: Health, Agriculture Key to Africa's Development

Bill Gates: Health, Agriculture Key to Africa's Development

AFP (July 24, 2014) Health and agriculture development are key if African countries are to overcome poverty and grow, US software billionaire Bill Gates said Thursday, as he received an honourary degree in Ethiopia. Duration: 00:36 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

    Health News

      Environment News

        Technology News



          Save/Print:
          Share:

          Free Subscriptions


          Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

          Get Social & Mobile


          Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

          Have Feedback?


          Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
          Mobile: iPhone Android Web
          Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
          Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
          Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins