StomaToy — Learning Plant Defence Through Play

Stomata are necessary for photosynthesis, but they're also access points for pathogens. How do plants defend them?

How do plants defend themselves against microbes? This is one of the primary focus areas for research in plant science. It is also an important question in its own right because it connects directly to the effect of plant immunity on plant productivity and consequently on questions surrounding global food security. Often, we do not see plant science as relevant to modern life. Yet, there are many parallels that can be drawn between plants and humans; for e.g. like humans, plants also have a complex immune system for pathogen defense. When we put dirty hands into our mouth, it can cause infection; similarly, the entry of pathogen through stomatal pores on leaves enables infection in plants! The StomaToy project aims to inspire children early on in life to take an interest in science and perhaps to become plant scientists in the future, and to bring scientific awareness to members of the public who care for the children.

StomaToys at Lancaster Fun Palace 2019.

The StomaToys combine plant science, electronics and art to instil interest in plant science and educate through play. They include the electronic interactive StomaToy, an activity book, a ‘Make your own paper StomaToy’ card and a video. The toys show how plants respond to light, breathe and defend themselves against pathogen using Stomata, the ‘tiny pores or mouths’ present on the leaf surfaces. The project is led by Dr Rucha Karnik and her lab within the Plant Science Group at the University of Glasgow. Research in the Karnik lab centres around plant growth and immunity and is funded by the Royal Society, University of Glasgow, Begonia Trust and the BBSRC. The StomaToy project is supported by funding from the Royal Society and the MVLS Engagement Fund.

Dr Abe Karnik’s and his Human Computer Interaction (HCI) lab in the School of Computing and Communications at Lancaster University designed and built the interactive StomaToy, in collaboration with the plant scientists at Glasgow. It represents a leaf section and conveys the concepts of light-activated stomatal opening, pathogen entry and cellular immune signalling using interactive light displays. The toy features an electronic ‘stomata’ in form of an opening aperture, which opens when light shines on a sensor. This replicates what happens in real plants when stomata open on the underside of a leaf in response to sunlight, to regulate the temperature of a plant and to exchange CO2 / water vapour to enable photosynthesis. Just like in real plants, the StomaToy’s stomata, when open, are an entry point for harmful pathogens. When pathogens enter through the stomata, cells are alerted to their presence. Chemicals are sent by the plant to fight off the pathogen, illustrated through lights within the toy that change colour from blue to red when a magnet – representing ‘pathogen’ – comes in contact with the plant cells. The StomaToy’s interactive features are powered by micro:bit making them accessible to young learners interested in technology too.

To give children a taste of being a plant scientist, the StomaToy Activity book, edited by Dr Rucha Karnik, includes a pathogen infection experiments with images of infected/healthy Arabidopsis plants generated during research in her lab. The book educates about plant biology and disease, as well as about stomata as the guardians of the plants through fun colouring and drawing activities. The StomaToy Cube card combines colouring, cutting out and assembly of your own leaf cross-section. This gives younger children the opportunity to learn about plants, leaf organisation and stomatal placement on leaves to facilitate transpiration. The StomaToy booklet and the leaf cube use doodle art by Dr Mathis Riehle, a Cell Engineer working on mammalian systems at the University of Glasgow. Mathis has interpreted and represented plant science through his art which is fun and attractive to children and adults alike.

The StomaToy team includes non-scientists. Flora Leask, a member of public, has helped the scientific team to interpret the project in ways that allow more efficient engagement with non-scientists. She and Lingfeng Xia, a Plant Science PhD student in the Karnik lab, produced the StomaToy video, featuring her take on the project and an interview with stomatal biologist, Prof Mike Blatt. Claire Osborne, an administrator at Glasgow University has worked with the scientists to co-ordinate a web presence for the project, making it accessible to a larger audience. The journey of the StomaToy project and its achievements can be seen as they happen on the StomaToy website and on Twitter @Stomatal_2019.

The StomaToys have interacted with a huge audience during the Glasgow Science festival and at the Lancaster Fun Palace, and the paper resources have been shared nationally and internationally. The project has been a learning and motivating experience for the team as well as its audiences. The StomaToy team has received excellent feedback from outreach audiences and is now working to further develop the StomaToys so that they can be shared freely with pre-schools and schools at a larger scale. If you would like to use the StomaToy resources for education or for personal learning, please email Dr Rucha Karnik (rucha.karnik@glasgow.ac.uk).

Dr Rucha Karnik is currently a Royal Society University Research Fellow in the IMCSB at the University of Glasgow. She focuses on the plasma membrane proton pumps in plants that are central to almost every aspect of plant physiology, including biomass production, root development, stomatal responses and pathogen defence.