Venus Fly Trap Science Connected to Thunderstorms in New Study

Good news for us, bad news for flies.

The nitrogen- and phosphorus-poor bogs of North and South Carolina aren’t the ideal places to soak up nutrients, so the patient Venus flytrap was forced to evolve and adapt another way to survive. That way is murder — the famously carnivorous plants lures then dines on ants, grasshoppers, spiders, and of course flies. Researchers have known the mechanism that triggers the plant to become a vehicle of death, but new research suggests that the process resembles another marvel of nature: thunderstorms.

As the video above shows, when a fly lands on a Venus flytrap, the plant is prompted to close its clam-like leaves and ensnare the insect. But the process is more complicated than that: When an insect touches the plant’s “trigger hair” sensors, they generate an electrical signal that activates motor cells. That’s the first clue to the flytrap that it’s dinner time — if the plant bumps the trigger hairs again, another electrical impulse is ignited. This switch of electricity causes water to shoot towards the leaves, a process that changes the leaves’ shape from convex to concave, and the so-called “trap” shuts.

On Thursday at the 71st Annual Gaseous Electronics Conference, scientists from the University of Alabama and Oakwood University presented an abstract detailing their finding that bugs brushing against the plant’s trigger hairs aren’t the only stimuli that kindle a catch. Highly reactive chemicals, the same that emerge after a lightning storm, also cause the same effect.

In the experiment, the team ionized air with an electrical generator to create what they call “cold plasma.” This plasma stream — which included hydrogen peroxide, nitric oxide, and ozone — was then wafted toward the Venus flytraps. When these highly reactive chemicals hit the plant, they also signaled motor cells, causing the flytraps to snap shut.

These chemicals don’t just trigger a Venus flytrap attack — they are also integral aspects of thunderstorms. That’s because when lighting strikes it distinctly impacts air chemistry: NASA discovered in 2003 that the amounts of ozone and nitrogen oxide created by lightning surpass those generated by human activities in the troposphere, and there has been evidence that lightning produces hydrogen peroxide in rainwater during thunderstorms.

Knowing that lightning-associated chemicals affect Venus flytraps isn’t just cool — the knowledge comes with implications for the future of “intelligent materials.” According to Science Magazine, the researchers behind this experiment hope that, by understanding the process of how chemicals can trigger plant signals, they can mimic that process to create materials that change shape after a similar trigger. Luckily for us, we can make use of what the Venus flytrap can teach us — and not end up like flies, trapped and dissolved by digestive juices.

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