As the sun moves across the sky, the pepper plant will slowly adjust its leaves to capture the optimal amount of light.

“The movement is subtle,” says Ivica Ico Bukvic, an associate professor in the School of Performing Arts, “but it can be profound.”

Pepper plants can also move their roots, flowers, and stems as they attempt to survive in harsh conditions, such as drought, low temperatures, or the presence of pathogens.

Bukvic and three other Virginia Tech faculty members — Bingyu Zhao, Jia-Bin Huang, and Daniel Pillis — are studying the importance of those micro-movements through an interdisciplinary research project they call “Dancing Plants.”

Launched in the fall of 2019 with support from the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology at Virginia Tech, the project aims to create an innovative agricultural technique in response to the loss of arable land due to climate change.

The team created a prototype imaging system based on the patterns of pepper plant movement when exposed to different stimuli. The system has multiple embedded cameras, with a remote-controlled smart infrastructure to allow for automated lighting and environmental control. Over the course of the project, the system will integrate with machine-learning technology to interpret the movement patterns.

With the help of the cameras and a depth-capture system, the researchers will document three-dimensional growth cycles while also monitoring the temperature fluctuation on the leaves’ surface. Once all of the image data are documented, the team plans to use sonification to convert those numbers into audible sounds to facilitate pattern detection in the plant’s behavior as it is subjected to various conditions. The resulting findings will in turn be used to decode the plant’s genome.

“As the genetic code of plants is altered,” says Bukvic, “they may exhibit different behavior in response to different conditions. Identifying patterns in such behaviors may help identify stronger genetic traits, as well as create early treatment options for plants that may exhibit distress.”

Written by Andrew Adkins