As a carnivorous plant, Venus flytraps have always been a fascinating subject of study. One of their many mysteries is how they differentiate an insect visit from less nutritious stimulants such as a windblown pebble. Now scientists are one step closer to deciphering the underlying mechanism, assisted by a new ability to visualize calcium changes in real time.
Calcium has long been suspected to play an important part in a Venus flytrap’s close/no-close decision process, but scientists couldn’t verify their hypothesis before. Standard chemical tests for calcium would require cutting the plant apart, which would only result in a static snapshot. The software analogy would be killing the process for a memory dump but unable to debug the process at runtime. There were tantalizing hints of a biological calcium-based analog computer at work, but mother nature had no reason to evolve JTAG test points on it.
Lacking in-circuit debug headers, scientists turned to the next best thing: add diagnostic indicator lights. But instead of blinking LEDs, genes were added to produce a protein that glows in the presence of calcium. Once successful, they could work with the engineered plants and get visual feedback. Immediately see calcium levels change and propagate in response to various stimuli over different time periods. Confirming that the trap snaps shut only in response to patterns of stimuli that push calcium levels beyond a threshold.
With these glowing proteins in place, researchers found that calcium explained some of the behavior but was not the whole picture. There’s something else, suspected to be a fast electrical network, that senses prey movement and trigger calcium release. That’ll be something to dig into, but at least we have more experience working with electrical impulses and not just for plants, either.