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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

Contact: Robert Sanders
University of California - Berkeley

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