In the 19th Century, a handful of scientists were gripped with a strange obsession – that electricity might be harnessed to make plants grow better. Could they have been on to something?

在19世紀,少數科學家有個奇怪的嗜好——利用電流可能使植物長得更好。他們發現了什么線索嗎?

There's a good chance you're familiar with Frankenstein's monster. But have you heard about his garden?

你很可能熟知弗蘭肯斯坦的怪物,但你聽說過他的花園嗎?

Around the time the scientist who inspired Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein was busy electrocuting live animals and dead prisoners, several of his contemporaries were doing the same to perennials and root vegetables. And just as these 18th Century forays into electrical stimulation purported to make the human body more robust (by delivering it from maladies ranging from paralysis and depression to diarrhoea and venereal disease), they were also being investigated for the betterment of plant life. Experiments on electrified gardens were alleged to produce a range of benefits, from brighter flowers to tastier fruit. Before long, this pursuit went the way of its cousin, medical electro-quackery, and by the end of the 19th Century, respectable science had largely jettisoned both.

瑪麗·雪萊的小說《弗蘭肯斯坦》的靈感來自一位科學家,當他忙于用電刑處死活體動物和死囚犯的時候,幾個同時代人正在對多年生植物和根莖類蔬菜做同樣的事情。正如18世紀旨在強身健體的電刺激試驗一樣(治愈癱瘓、抑郁、腹瀉、性病等疾?。?,人們也在研究電刺激給植物帶來的益處。據說電氣園藝試驗帶來了許多益處,包括花朵更鮮艷,水果更鮮美。沒過多久,這種嘗試就走上了它的近親——電子庸醫之路。到了19世紀末,可敬的科學基本上把兩者都淘汰了。
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More than a century on, better tools and new insights are reanimating the study of electricity's effects on biology. Uninformed early animal experiments have resolved over the past 200 years into real understanding – and led to promising electrical medicine. Similarly, the old vegetable experiments are being exhumed to see what modern fruit they may yield. Maybe the new understanding could even improve 21st Century gardens.

一個多世紀后出現了更好的工具和新的見解,關于電流對植物的生理影響方面的研究重新活躍起來。在過去的200年里,古老而蒙昧的動物實驗已逐漸演變為真知灼見,產生了富有前景的電療。同樣,科學家也在探索古老的植物試驗,看看可以取得什么現代成果。新的認識甚至可能給21世紀的園藝帶來進步。

The first hints that electric shocks might have a dramatic impact on crops came not from any human intervention but from nature itself. After a lightning storm, according to longstanding Japanese farming lore, mushrooms would proliferate madly.

電擊可能對農作物產生巨大的影響,最初的線索并非來自人為干預,而是來自大自然。根據日本流傳已久的農業傳說,雷雨過后,蘑菇數量激增。

But you couldn't exactly call down lightning on demand to confirm this experimentally. Until, that is, the 1740s when various new devices allowed scientists to store and deploy this still-mysterious phenomena of "electricity" at will for the first time.

但你在試驗中不可能隨時召喚閃電來驗證這種現象。直到18世紀40年代涌現出各種新型設備,科學家第一次可以隨意地儲存和利用這種仍然神秘的“電”現象。

Soon deploying electricity as a gardening aid became a hot topic. Pierre Bertholon de Saint-Lazare – a French physicist and philosopher who experimented widely on the still poorly understood mysteries of electricity – curated many of his contemporaries' plant experiments into a collection, De L'électricité des Végétaux.

很快,利用電流作為栽培的輔助手段成為一個熱門話題。皮埃爾·貝爾托隆·德·圣拉扎爾是一位法國物理學家和哲學家,他對人類仍然知之甚少的電奧秘進行了廣泛的試驗,將同時代人的許多植物試驗編纂成了文集《植物通電》。

Alongside the brighter blossoms, flowers were alleged to bloom earlier after electrification; similarly, electrifying fruit reportedly hastened the ripeness of their smell and taste. But Bertholon's main focus was on the new device he had invented: instead of zapping individual fruits and vegetables one by one, the huge contraption could infuse electricity into entire garden plots. It electrified the very soil and air that nurtured the growing plants – as if it was an electrical "manure".

通電后不僅花開得更鮮艷,據說還會提前盛開;同樣,據報道給水果通電能加快氣味和味道的成熟。但貝爾托隆的重點是他發明的新式裝置:這座巨大而奇特的裝置能給整個園地通電,而不是電擊單個的水果和蔬菜。該裝置能給栽培植物的土壤和空氣通電,猶如電氣“肥料”。
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The electro-vegeto-meter

植物通電儀

The elevated system of masts and wiring Bertholon had rigged up collected atmospheric electricity, drew it down, and distributed it into his crops. According to him, it mimicked the stimulating effects of lightning. Only it did the job better than the natural variety, dispensing small, continuous amounts of electricity rather than dosing with a single, damaging strike. The "electro-vegeto-meter", he reported, increased the growth of the plants beneath its arc, accelerating "the germination, the growth, and production of leaves, flowers, fruit, and their multiplication".

貝爾托隆利用桅桿和電線搭建成簡易的高架裝置,用來收集大氣電流,將電流引下來分配給農作物。據他說這能效仿閃電的刺激作用,但比大自然的效果更好,提供小而持續的電流,而不是一次破壞性的打擊。他的報告顯示,“植物通電儀”提供的電流促進了植物生長,加速了“葉子、花朵、果實的萌發、生長、繁殖”。

Bertholon also made copious use of electricity in other forms, reportedly dispatching insect pests by using a rudimentary tool to zap an infested tree. His contemporaries had many other colourful uses for electricity in their gardens – one set out plans to irrigate his plants with a special water that he claimed, rather dubiously, had been "impregnated with electrical fluid" to replace traditional approaches to fertiliser.

貝爾托隆還以其他方式大量利用電流,據說使用一種簡易工具電擊遭受蟲害的樹木來殺死害蟲。他的同時代人在園藝中對電流有許多其他豐富多彩的用途——有個人打算用一種特殊的水灌溉植物,相當可疑的是,他聲稱水中“充滿了電流體”,用于替代傳統的施肥方法。

Not everyone was convinced. Things went badly after Jan Ingenhousz, the Dutch-British physiologist who discovered photosynthesis, availed himself of an electro-vegeto-meter of his own to use on his garden – and it promptly shrivelled up all his plants. He concluded that Bertholon's electrical manure was, well, manure.

并不是所有人都堅信不疑。發現光合作用的荷蘭裔英國生理學家簡·英根豪斯在自己的花園里使用一臺植物通電儀,結果情況不妙,所有的植物立刻枯萎了。他得出的結論是,貝爾托隆的“電氣肥料”其實是糞肥。

Interest in electroculture waned. A few private gentleman scientist types continued to run small experiments: in the 1830s, one claimed his experiments demonstrated that plants are excellent conductors, implying that electricity was a fundamental aspect of their biology. But neither the science nor tools were sufficiently advanced to support such claims. After that, apart from a few niche projects, the idea of electroculture swiftly fell out of favour among the electrorati.

人們對電氣栽培逐漸失去興趣。少數自掏腰包的紳士科學家繼續進行小型試驗:19世紀30年代,有個人聲稱他的試驗證明了植物是良好的導體,這表明電流是植物的基本機理因素。但當時的科學和工具都不夠先進,不足以支持這種說法。后來除了一些小眾項目,電氣栽培這種理念很快就失寵了。

"We cannot avoid asking ourselves," wrote two critics in a plaintive 1918 paper, looking back on the fall of the events, "how it is that while the study of electricity and its many industrial applications has developed into enormous importance, electroculture in the meantime has remained practically stationary for a century and a half." They concluded: "We probably find the answer in the stagnation of the science of the living plant."

“我們不禁自問”,兩位評論家在1918年的一篇論文中哀嘆道,回顧這些事件的發生,“電氣研究及其許多工業用途已經變得極其重要,為什么電氣栽培卻在一個半世紀里幾乎停滯不前”?他們的結論是:“我們也許能從活體植物學的發展停滯中找到答案”。

In other words, to improve electroculture you'd first have to understand how it might work, and to understand that, one would need to understand the electrical dimensions of plant biology. Luckily, by the time the duo voiced their complaint, the first slim shoots of exactly such an endeavour were already poking through the frost. Interest in vegetation and electricity had been reanimated by none other than Charles Darwin.

也就是說,要想改進電氣栽培,你先得了解工作原理,要想做到這一點,你需要了解植物生理的電特性??上驳氖?,兩位評論家發出抱怨的時候,做這種嘗試的首批萌芽已經從霜凍中破土而出。使人們重新對植物與電產生興趣的正是查爾斯·達爾文。

Darwin's carnivorous vegetables

達爾文的食肉植物

His grandfather had been convinced that electricity could hasten the growth of plants – but Charles Darwin's contention was built on more solid scientific ground. He believed electricity to be a fundamental aspect of plant physiology, the same way the neurophysiologists of the 19th Century were starting to show how electric signals are the fundamental underpinning of the human nervous system signals that let us to think and feel and move.

他的祖父相信電流能夠促進植物的生長,但查爾斯·達爾文的觀點是基于更可靠的科學依據。他認為電流是植物生理上的基本要素,正如19世紀的神經生理學家證明,電信號是人類神經系統信號的基礎,使我們得以思考、感知、活動。

Darwin's obsession had started small, with a single meat-eating plant in the genus Drosera, otherwise known as the sundews. Barely a year after the publication of On the Origin of the Species, it was all he could think about. "At the present moment, I care more about Drosera than the origin of all the species in the world," he wrote in 1860. Little wonder. Drosera did everything plants aren't supposed to – it ate meat, and it hunted. Its long, sticky tentacles trapped flies on glue-like secretions and then curled inexorably around the unfortunate prey until it was wrapped up like a macabre Swiss roll.

達爾文的癡迷始于一種不起眼的食肉植物,它屬于茅膏菜屬植物,又名毛氈苔?!段锓N起源》出版僅僅一年之后,他滿腦子想的都是這種植物?!艾F在我更關心的是茅膏菜屬植物,而不是世界上所有物種的起源”,他在1860年寫道。這也難怪,茅膏菜屬植物所做的一切都是植物不該做的——吃肉和捕捉獵物。又長又粘的觸毛把蒼蠅困在膠水一樣的分泌物里,然后觸毛在不幸的獵物四周卷曲,直到被裹得像一個恐怖的瑞士卷。


Darwin was intrigued by the animal-like reflexes of the Venus flytrap

讓達爾文感興趣的是,捕蠅草有像動物一樣的本能反應。

How could this be? "Carnivorous vegetable" was an oxymoron! But Drosera wasn't alone. Dionaea muscipula (you know it as the Venus flytrap) hunted even faster – as Darwin admiringly described, "the leaves of which catch insects just like a steel rat-trap". Their reflexes seemed animal-like. One friend, a physiologist and botanist whose expertise straddled the plant and animal kingdoms, suggested they examine these odd plants for the same kinds of "nervous" electrical changes that physiologists had recently identified animating animal muscles.

這怎么可能呢?“食肉植物”是矛盾的說法!但茅膏菜屬植物并非獨有,捕蠅草(Dionaea muscipula)的捕捉速度更快——正如達爾文欽佩地描述道:“它們捕蟲的葉子猶如鋼制捕鼠器”。它們的本能反應就像動物。一位朋友是生理學家和植物學家,他的專業知識橫跨植物界和動物界,他建議檢查這些奇特植物的“神經”電位變化,最近生理學家發現這種電位變化使動物肌肉變得興奮。

They found them. The published results showed that when the flytrap slammed shut, it was accompanied by activity that looked awfully similar to the action potential that had defined animal electricity. These signals were not unique to the animal kingdom.

他們找到了電位變化。公布的結果顯示,當捕蠅草猛然合攏時,伴隨的活動與決定動物電流的動作電位極其相似,這些電信號并非動物界所獨有。

But their ideas, too, were overwhelmingly rejected by plant physiologists. You can understand why: carnivorous plants moved fast and hunted like animals – so for them, nervous signals made a kind of sense. But other plants didn't move, and they didn't hunt. They just sat there and ate sunshine. It made no sense to them to extrapolate the unique attributes of the carnivore – a taxonomic outlier – to the rest of the plant kingdom.

但是,他們的觀點也遭到了大多數植物生理學家的反對。你可以理解其中的原因:食肉植物的動作很快,像動物一樣捕捉獵物——所以神經信號對它們來說是有意義的。但其他植物既不活動,也不捕捉獵物,只是靜止地攝取陽光。推斷植物界的其他植物也具有食肉植物(分類系統中的另類)的獨特特征毫無意義。

A couple of decades later, an Indian engineer and polymath called Jagadis Chandra Bose revisited Darwin's question. He was particularly curious about Mimosa pudica, a little fern-like perennial. It doesn't eat meat – but it does move. It folds up its little fern leaves when startled – a remarkable tic that has earned it a slew of nicknames over the years, including "sensitive plant" and touch-me-not. Bose reckoned that these fast movements should be underpinned by animal-like nervous activity too.

幾十年后,一位名叫賈加迪斯·錢德拉·博斯的印度工程師和博學家重新審視了達爾文的問題。他對含羞草特別好奇,它是一種有點像蕨類植物的多年生植物。它不吃肉——但確實會動。受到驚嚇時,它會把小小的蕨葉合攏起來——這鐘奇特的抽搐多年來為它贏得了許多綽號,包括“敏感植物”、“不要碰我”。博斯認為,這種快速動作應該也是基于動物一樣的神經活動。

Sure enough, an electrometer revealed the action potentials he was looking for, spiking right before the little plant folded up its leaflets, just as they had been found preceding the snap-shut response of the Venus flytrap. Bose's curiosity was inflamed: what other plants had electric signals? In 1901, he reported strong electrical signals in a slew of ordinary plants that neither moved nor ate, including rhubarb and horse radish. Over the next decades these findings were extended to onions, trees, and pretty much every member of the plant kingdom anyone bothered to measure.

果然,就在這株小植物合攏葉片之前,靜電計顯示他尋找的動作電位急速上升,就像在捕蠅草猛然合攏之前發現的那樣。這激起了博斯的好奇心:還有哪些植物有電信號?1901年,他報告了許多既不活動也不捕食的普通植物也有強烈的電信號,包括大黃和馬蘿卜。在接下來的幾十年里,這些發現擴展到了洋蔥、樹木,以及植物界里幾乎每一種有人愿意測量的植物。

Plants are electric

植物是帶電的

This went largely unexplained until the late 20th century, when neuroscience tools revealed that plant cells use electrical charges to manage their internal communications, just as animal cells do. All living cells have pores in their outer lining which ensure that different ions stay on different sides of the membrane. Mammalian cells like to keep potassium ions inside and sodium ions outside. As a result of these imbalances, the inside of the cell carries a tiny negative charge. The nervous system uses these little batteries to send all messages about what the body is feeling and doing to and from the brain.

這在當時基本無法解釋,直到20世紀末,神經科學的工具揭示了植物細胞和動物細胞一樣,利用電荷來實現體內通信。所有活細胞的外層都有孔隙,可以確保細胞膜的兩側存在各種離子。哺乳動物的細胞喜歡把鉀離子留在內側,把鈉離子留在外側,這種濃度差導致細胞內攜帶微小的負電荷。神經系統利用這些小電池與大腦交流關于身體感受和行為的所有信息。
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Plant cells have an inner voltage too, and they use them to the same effect: to communicate information about their environment. Research conducted in the late 1990s demonstrated that plants responded electrically to different stimuli, including light, temperature, touch, and injury. This aligned with insights from chemical plant communication, which suggested that plants can sense danger, communicate with other plants and call to animals for help. Corn, for example, can summon wasps to attack the kinds of caterpillars that attack corn. During those decades, concepts that had previously only been associated with neuroscience increasingly crept into plant physiology.

植物細胞的內部也有電壓,它們利用電壓來達到同樣的效果:交流有關環境的信息。20世紀90年代末進行的研究表明,植物對各種刺激都會產生電流反應,包括光、溫度、觸摸、傷害。這與植物化學通訊的見解相一致,后者表明植物可以感知危險,與其他植物進行通訊,并向動物尋求幫助。例如,當玉米受到毛蟲的攻擊時,它會召喚黃蜂來進行反擊。在那幾十年里,以前只與神經科學相關的理念越來越多地滲透到植物生理學中。
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Towards the end of the 19th century, an Indian scientist found electrical signals in Mimosa pudica, otherwise known as the 'sensitive plant'

19世紀末,一位印度科學家在含羞草中發現了電信號。

Such findings reignited a decades-old conversation about plant intelligence, perceived as an irrelevant wild goose chase in some circles of plant electrophysiology. Are plants intelligent? If so, what would it say about our definition of "intelligence"? The debate continues, but it is not the only way to think about plant electrical signals.

這些發現再次激起了幾十年來關于植物智能的討論,植物電生理學的某些圈子認為,植物智能是一個沒什么用處和虛無縹緲的課題。植物有智能嗎?如果有的話,對于我們有關“智能”的定義意味著什么?爭論仍在繼續,但這并不是思考植物電信號的唯一方法。

Some botanists are not averse to the idea that plants use complicated signals to communicate with each other and the natural world. It's just that they are not like ours. In animals, electrical communication works like this: nerve cells like to keep potassium inside and sodium outside, and the electrical differences created by these ions' separation fundamentally underpins the neuron's ability to send an action potential. However, sodium plays no part in plant action potentials, because sodium is toxic to plants. In their bodies, the roles of potassium and sodium are played by potassium, chloride, and calcium. The electrical signals this enables look different, on closer inspection. For one thing they are stronger. For another they have a slightly more varied repertoire. Apart from the standard action potential, plants also enlist two further signals - the "variation potential" and the "system potential".

有些植物學家并不反對這種觀點,即植物利用復雜的信號來與彼此以及自然界進行通訊,但與我們的信號有差別。在動物界,電通訊的原理是這樣的:神經細胞喜歡把鉀離子留在細胞內,把鈉離子留在細胞外,離子的相互隔離產生了電位差,基本構成了神經細胞發送動作電位能力的基礎。但是,鈉離子在植物的動作電位中不發揮作用,因為鈉對植物有毒。在植物體內,鉀和鈉的作用由鉀、氯化物、鈣來代替。經過仔細觀察,以這種方式產生的電信號似乎有所不同。一方面信號更強;另一方面,信號具備的能力稍多一些。除了普通的動作電位,植物還能發送另外兩種信號——“變異電位”和“系統電位”。

These signals coordinate different systems. The action potential basically acts like it does in animals: communicates quickly and over long distances, about interesting stimuli, for example someone touching it or a palpable temperature change. The variation potential is more variable (as the name suggests); it's triggered by cutting, burning, and other kinds of injury, and the size of the signal depends on the severity of the damage. The surface potential is slow and local and probably lixed to nutrient status.

這些信號協調植物的各個系統。動作電位的作用基本和動物一樣:就值得關注的刺激因素進行快速、遠程的通訊,比如受到觸摸或明顯的溫度變化。變異電位顧名思義比較易變;它由切割、燒傷及其他類型的傷害觸發,信號大小取決于受傷的嚴重程度。表面電位具有緩慢和局部性特點,并且可能與營養狀況有關。

But plants don't just use these signals to talk to themselves about their internal state: they may also be talking to one another. Some believe they can travel through a network of fungal filaments that are ubiquitous in soil and appear to act as circuitry.

但是,植物不僅利用這些信號與自己交流體內的狀態:植物之間也可能進行交流。有人認為,信號可以通過真菌絲網絡進行傳播,真菌絲在土壤中無處不在,它們似乎發揮著電路的作用。

This has raised a new prospect. Could we eavesdrop on plants, and decode these electrical signals ourselves? From knowing whether the plants are sitting comfortably – are they too hot or cold? Do they need more nutrients from the soil? Or could they give us an early warning that our plants are being attacked by pathogens?

這開辟了新的前景。我們能否竊聽植物和破譯這些電信號?了解植物是否感覺舒適——是否太熱或者太冷?它們需要從土壤中攝取更多的養分嗎?它們能否向我們發出預警:我們的植物正在遭受病原體的攻擊?

It raises a tantalising prospect – we may be about to find out what our vegetables are "thinking".

這開辟了誘人的前景——也許我們即將知道植物在“想”什么。