What if crops could actually tell farmers when they are stressed – and why?
This sounds like the stuff of fairy tales. But theoretically it can happen with the right sensors tapping into a plant’s biosignals, along with sophisticated data analysis to help translate these signals into a decipherable language.
Yet, just like with humans, a plant’s language can be complex and ambiguous. Did that heightened biosignaling happen because of too much water, or too little? Is a plant ‘panicking’ about a fungal outbreak, an insect infestation, or even an adverse reaction to chemical pesticides?
Vivent, a Swiss biotech startup, has been building sensors and algorithms to better make sense of these sorts of mixed signals. This week it closed a “multi-million euro” seed round from Brussels-based impact investors Astanor Ventures.
The company says the funds will be used to grow sales of its plant electrophysiology system, which is able to diagnose crop stress in real time, while also developing its algorithms to detect differing causes of stress for a wider range of crops.
Plants use a variety of internal electrical, mechanical, and chemical signaling to coordinate life processes such as growth, reproduction, and defense. Electrical signals are among the fastest to transmit information throughout a plant, from roots to shoots. Vivent’s crop diagnostics system, called PhytlSigns, uses AI to interpret signals linked to plant stress and identifies pathogens and pests prior to the appearance of any visible symptoms.
“It’s like an ECG for humans, only we’re applying it to plants,” Vivent founder Carrol Plummer told AFN, referring to electrocardiogram scanning technologies.
“When we see plants, we see an information flow,” she added, noting how initially she had been surprised that most current measurements of a crop’s health involve monitoring its surroundings – temperature, air quality, moisture, and so on.
Ask the plants
Early diagnosis by “asking the plants themselves,” Plummer said, can increase yields, improve crop protection effectiveness, and encourage adoption of environmentally preferable solutions.
Chemical pesticide use is increasingly seen by regulators and consumers as a major ecological and food safety issue, and Vivent’s claimed environmental credentials proved compelling for its seed investors. Astanor managing partner Christina Ulardic told AFN she foresees Vivent making an impact by enabling “less invasive, less chemically intensive methods of reacting to outbreaks.” She also believes the startup could help support the adoption of alternative crop treatments, as Vivent’s tech can help keep track of biological “effectiveness” – something a lot of farmers remain uncertain about when using biologicals rather than conventional chemicals.
Equally, Ulardic said she was impressed by how this might work nicely alongside irrigation technologies, making water treatments more responsive to a crop’s real-time thirst.