Navigation Links
If plants generate magnetic fields, they're not sayin'

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.


Contact: Robert Sanders
University of California - Berkeley

Related biology news :

1. Commercial aquatic plants offer cost-effective method for treating wastewater
2. UC Riverside biochemists devise method for bypassing aluminum toxicity effects in plants
3. Reproducing early and often is the key to rapid evolution in plants
4. MSU scientists find new gene that helps plants beat the heat
5. Researchers design artificial cells that could power medical implants
6. When under attack, plants can signal microbial friends for help
7. Current mass extinction spurs major study of which plants to save
8. Scientists unveil mechanism for up and down in plants
9. New hybrid plants could prompt more prodigious pepper production in Southwest
10. Extreme weather postpones the flowering time of plants
11. Even plants benefit from outsourcing
Post Your Comments:
Related Image:
If plants generate magnetic fields, they're not sayin'
(Date:11/16/2015)... , Nov 16, 2015  Synaptics Inc. ... human interface solutions, today announced expansion of its ... ™ touch controller and display driver integration ... of smartphones. These new TDDI products add to ... (HD resolution), TD4302 (WQHD resolution), and TD4322 (FHD ...
(Date:11/11/2015)... Minn. , Nov. 11, 2015   MedNet Solutions ... entire spectrum of clinical research, is pleased to announce that ... in Clinical Trials (PCT) event, to be held November ... be able to view live demonstrations of iMedNet ... and learn how iMedNet has been able to ...
(Date:11/9/2015)... JOSE, Calif. , Nov. 9, 2015  Synaptics ... human interface solutions, today announced broader entry into the ... vehicle-specific solutions that match the pace of consumer electronics ... and biometric sensors are ideal for the automotive industry ... vehicle. Europe , ...
Breaking Biology News(10 mins):
(Date:11/25/2015)... Muncie, IN (PRWEB) , ... November 25, 2015 ... ... Aeronautics (AMA) and the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OPBAP) has been formalized ... Mathewson and other AMA team leaders met with OPBAP leaders Capt. Karl Minter ...
(Date:11/25/2015)... PORTLAND, Oregon , November 25, 2015 /PRNewswire/ ... Deep Market Research Report is a professional and ... Genomics industry.      (Logo: ... basic overview of the industry including definitions, classifications, ... analysis is provided for the international markets including ...
(Date:11/24/2015)... , Nov. 24, 2015  Asia-Pacific (APAC) ... research organisation (CRO) market. The trend of outsourcing ... lower margins but higher volume share for the ... and scale, however, margins in the CRO industry ... (CRO) Market ( ), finds that ...
(Date:11/24/2015)... Nov. 24, 2015 Cepheid (NASDAQ: CPHD ... at the following conference, and invited investors to participate ...      Tuesday, December 1, 2015 at 11.00 a.m. ...      Tuesday, December 1, 2015 at 11.00 a.m. ... New York, NY      Tuesday, December ...
Breaking Biology Technology: