Plants: The Original Techies

By Jeff Floyd

We’re fascinated by the clever inventions that enrich our lives, but you can be sure that many high-tech ideas are not as fresh as we think.

It’s easy to overlook the amazing gifts that plants have been using long before we took credit for them. Put on your thinking cap while we take an amusing look at just a few plant functions that may, at times, appear vaguely familiar to some of the things our most modern gadgets do.

Smartphones cameras have revolutionized how information is shared. We have the ability to send and receive real-time images from virtually anywhere on the globe. Although we began reproducing images of things before 1940, it wasn’t until after 2009 that the term “selfie” was popularized by a generation of techies making full use of digital cameras while living out loud on social media.

By design, plants take selfies to the next level, generating fully functional copies of themselves. For example, in addition to the showy flowers of impatiens, it also has tiny unnoticeable flowers tucked away as a backup system.  These inconspicuous flowers house everything they need for pollination is protected within.  If for some reason insects fail to transfer pollen from one impatiens to another, the plants will still have the backup seed hidden within the tiny flowers for creating an exact replica of itself; a selfie in the truest sense.  Have you ever had to deal with a hard drive crash?  The impatiens is prepared for just such an eventuality.  The survival of its operating system is ingeniously ensured by the backup system that results in a selfie.

Black Krim tomatoes and other heirlooms use the same backup mechanism as impatiens.  Contained within the fruit of every Black Krim, are the seeds that will produce a new plant with tomatoes exactly like the original as long as it is kept away from other varieties.  Why seclude heirloom plants from other varieties.   If an heirloom is pollinated by a different variety, the cross-pollination, or if you will, the corruption of its data will produce something entirely different than the original.  In other words, the seed won’t be a true genetic copy of the original tomato.

We’ve been harnessing energy from the sun in one form or another since seventh century B.C.  It’s not hard to imagine the earliest use of some object reminiscent of a magnifying glass for igniting fires.  Fast forward to present-day solar panels with their complex array of electrical components being developed for ever higher efficiency.  It’s easy to forget that we weren’t the first beings on the planet to make use of solar energy.  Even before we lit our first fires or discovered the simple pleasure of focusing a magnified beam onto innocent bug, plants had long mastered converting the sun’s energy into biomass.

Solar panels are sadly inefficient when compared to plant leaves.  They employ a sophisticated feedback system at a molecular level that allows them to draw on resources stored with the help of the sun during plentiful times.  Like modern solar appliances, plants are able to adjust their energy demand with available sunlight.  Or they can adjust their structure to improve their use of resources.  Trees respond to low light conditions deep inside overcrowded canopies by shedding unproductive leaves, clearing the way for light to reach more efficient foliage.  One could argue that plants prove there is nothing new under the sun.

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