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What if plants took over telecommunications?

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ITQB NOVA researchers co-developed the award-winning idea, which taps into the inherent communication ability of plants for both telecommunication and information management.

Oeiras, 25 July 2023

To create innovative solutions based on disruptive technologies. This was the inspiration for the Serendipity Collective award-winning project. The out-of-the-box idea, co-developed by Cristina Silva Pereira and Carlos Moreira, Associate Professor and postdoctoral researcher at ITQB NOVA, respectively, was selected among hundreds to be showcased in Berlin, in May. The team had two days to prepare a pitch to sell their idea, which ended up being one of the three winners.

The idea behind the project “Green-G: Connecting all plants on Earth for telecommunications and information management” is nothing less, nothing more than to replace the current telecommunications system with a plant-based one, taking advantage of plants' ability to communicate. “Plants are connected through vast networks underground. They also need receptors to decode and amplify signals”, explains Cristina Silva Pereira. This parallelism inspired them.

The futuristic idea came from an equally unconventional team composed by two senior researchers, a postdoctoral researcher, a technology master's student, and Tom Chatfield, author of the worldwide success “Critical Thinking” and tech philosopher. This fusion of talents gave rise to a completely disruptive way of doing science. Challenging the limits of conventional thinking, they wanted to find solutions for problems humanity has not even faced yet. Solutions that only the future could contextualize.

"In 50 or 100 years it is likely that we will have learned to decode all the signals involved in plant communication and that we will even know how to communicate with them", explains researcher Carlos Moreira. "We will be able to listen to forests and use that for the benefit of humanity. For instance, we can make one forest teach another to survive in a threatened area", he exemplifies. With the $50K prize, researchers plan to create an extended consortium to promote advances in the various areas of Green-G.

But how did this unusual project come to life? The driving force for the application came from the Office of Naval Research Global (ONRG), one of the Serendipity Collective sponsors, which already had a history of collaboration with ITQB NOVA. It all started in 2022 when the organization visited ITQB NOVA and showed interest in collaborating with institutions with innovative ideas. This marked the beginning of all serendipity moments that followed, starting with €300K of funding for a project led by Cristina Silva Pereira.

The latter aims to study another mechanism taking place deep in the soil: the growth and development of mycelial cords, specialized root-like structures that fungi use to search for new substrates and survive in nutrient-poor environments. Researchers seek to decode the chemical machinery behind this morphological modification that makes fungi capable of destroying houses and crops. 

Both projects are examples of how we can advance science by breaking the paradigm, from its intervenients and methods used to come up with ideas to funding schemes.

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