Gene-editing has created a generation of musical crops
It has been known for some time that plants can talk to one another.
Many communicate chemically, both through the air and via their roots—warning each other, for example, of the arrival of herbivorous insects in order to co-ordinate their responses to these pests.
Those responses are also often a form of communication, namely a further release of chemicals that recruit predators and parasites of said herbivores.
These then solve their summoners' problems by having lunch.
Plants' interactions with sound are less well understood, though it is known that flowers such as evening primroses can detect the buzzing of bees and respond by producing sweeter nectar.
Moreover, a paper published in this week's Cell, by Lilach Hadany of Tel-Aviv University and her colleagues, describes how plants make noises when they are stressed by drought or physical damage.
Dr Hadany and her team do not yet know whether other plants are listening, but suspect that they might be.
None of this is news, however, to Paolo Fril, CEO and chief scientist of the Gene Duplication Corporation (GeneDupe), a biotechnology firm in San Melito, California.
Observing that gardeners and greenhouse owners, from Britain's new king, Charles III, downwards, often talk to their charges, and sometimes even play them music, he and his team have been investigating plants' aural and oral activities for several years, and are now tweaking them using crispr-Cas9 gene-editing technology.
The plan is to create a range of products which Dr Fril hopes will please his firm's shareholders—which he needs to do after an awkward run-in the company had a few years ago with some animal-rights activists over its previous product, Print-a-pet.
Fortunately for Dr Fril, the plant-welfare lobby is not nearly as large and noisy as its animal counterpart.
The obvious place for this new endeavour to start was with the ears of cereal crops.
Though not ears in the conventional sense of the word, GeneDupe's biotechnologists realised that they could be turned into such.
Each of the spikes attached to the seeds in an ear of barley, wheat or rye has a resonant frequency that depends, like the note plucked from a harp string, on its length.
If those lengths can be varied precisely from seed to seed by appropriate gene editing, such an “ear” can be made into a real ear, with every spike responding to its own, unique, resonant frequency in a manner similar to the hair cells in the mammalian version of that organ.