A Venus flytrap and fly

Electrical signalling

Plants, like animals, use action potentials to respond to stimuli

Action potential in a venus fly trap

An action potential in a venus flytrap. The x-axis shows the time from stimulation in ms, while the y-axis shows the membrane potential in mV.

Venus flytraps are known for their ability to snap shut when an insect lands between their leaves. The mechanism behind this rapid response is not entirely clear, but scientists now know that it is controlled by electrical signals similar to those that form the nerve impulses of animals. The key to both types of electrical signal is something called an action potential – a difference in concentrations of ions between the two sides of a cell membrane.

Other plants use action potentials too – if not so dramatically. All plants produce electrical signals, which mediate functions such as recognising pollen and responding to pathogens. But there are not thought to be any specialised networks of cells that carry these signals as there are in animals.

A project led by Italian computer engineers is trying to categorise the electrical signals of plants and hook them up to electrical devices – creating biosensors or ‘cyborg plants’ – in order to use these signals to glean information about the environment. The idea is that because plants simultaneously process lots of different kinds of information about their surroundings, it might be a more efficient way to monitor the environment than by using different sensors for each kind.

Lead image:

Manuel Jung/iStock


Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Plants’ in May 2016.

Ecology and environment, Cell biology
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development