This photograph shows me standing in front of a microscope built specifically for my laboratory, used to track the growth of rice roots and their symbiotic mycorhizal fungi. My group specializes in bio-inspired soft robotics, and we are studying this symbiosis to learn behaviour rules that could one day be used by robots to explore the soil, on Earth, or on other planets.
This project is funded by the European Research Council, and is an evolution of my past projects on robots inspired by roots and by climbing plants. With another European grant, I started a project to develop robotic sensors inspired by seeds, which could be used to measure soil and air quality. But this is the most complicated project so far.
Biologists already know that mycorhizal symbiosis is fundamental for ecosystems. Fungi provide inorganic substances to plants in exchange for sugar, and help recycling organic substance from the plant. They also help plants get nutrients that they would not reach by themselves, such as phosphorus. But we want to test more recent theories that suggest that roots and fungi form an underground network (someone calls it the Wood Wide Web) that plants use to communicate with each other, sending alarm signals, even exchanging nutrients to help plants that are in a less favourable positions and do not get enough light or water.
Understanding and preserving these networks is important for fighting climate change, too. In cold and temperate areas especially, symbiosis helps fixate carbon dioxide and mitigate global warming, but a warming climate can prevent symbiosis from happening.
We have a greenhouse near the lab where we grow rice plants, inoculate them with the fungi and wait for symbiosis to develop. We then use this microscope and other methods to understand what conditions can favour the symbiosis, and how the biology of the plant changes because of it. At some point, we will do controlled experiments to see whether the symbiotic organisms release specific substances in the soil, or electrical signals.
We hope to use the results to develop artificial communication networks, that underground robots could use to exchange information and coordinate as they move through soil. This would have many applications in environmental monitoring, and even in space science. NASA, for example, is very interested in new technologies to explore the surface and soil of planets. Another goal would be to upgrade our previous plant-inspired robots and use them to release substances in the soil to help the symbiosis.
We have a lot of fundamental research to do before getting to applications, though. The biological part has many unknowns, and the soil is a very complicated environment. It hosts myriads of organisms, but we know very little about them. It is even less explored than sea depths. We hope robotics can offer new tools to study the soil, to monitor its health, to release useful substances.
Our group is highly interdisciplinary and includes roboticists, material scientists, biologists, mathematicians, mechanical engineers. Interdisciplinary science is not easy. You have to find scientists who are willing to take risks, because they may end up publishing in journals outside their specific field, and in Italy that can be a problem when it comes to becoming a professor. It is not for everyone, and at the beginning we had people literally running away. But once people get past the first months, you can see wonderful exchanges happening in the lab.
Since my first European grant for plant-inspired robotics in 2012, I have seen the attitude of funding agencies towards this kind of research change completely. The attention to the environment, and to how technology can contribute to protecting it, has increased a lot, and many new labs were created that work on these themes. Now, I am a bit worried by the new European framework programme, where I see a return to an emphasis on applied research and technology transfer. There are less opportunities for high risk projects, and that is a problem. People often do not realize that engineering needs basic research, too.