BGU researchers: Plants play ‘broken telephone’

Plants can “sense and react to distress signals” from their floral counterparts, according to researchers.

By JUDY SIEGEL
February 13, 2012 00:02
1 minute read.
Wildflowers in the north

Wildflowers in the north 390. (photo credit: Joe Yudin)

 
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Although the habit of Britain’s Prince Charles of talking to his plants to “help them thrive” has never been scientifically proven effective, researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev have shown that plants can “sense and react to distress signals” from their floral counterparts.

The unusual research was just published in the openaccess journal PLoS (Public Library of Science One).

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As plants usually are not mobile, they are suited to a variety of difficulties and challenges. But until now, their ability to use environmental information about distress that they absorb from nearby plants has not been well known.

A BGU Blaustein Institute for Desert Research team, headed by Prof. Ariel Novoplansky, discovered recently that “distress signals” are transmitted from one plant to its neighbors via their roots in the ground. Distress can be caused, for example, by dryness or salt. Soon after the exposure of one plant to distress, its neighbors not yet affected suddenly react as if they had suffered themselves. Other members of the team were Drs. Omer Falik, Yonat Mordoch, Lydia Quansah and Aaron Fait.

Using an experimental system that ruled out an ability for the plants to be in contact with its neighbors in various other ways, it was found that the result of the cues was like that in a “broken telephone” children’s game. The plants that received the distress signals from nearby transmitted them to more-distant plants in a chain. The far-away plants reacted to the signals the same way, the researchers said.

The receipt of these signals increases the more distant plants’ ability to survive stressful conditions in the future, they said. For example, plants can close their stomata (leaf pores) to prevent moisture from escaping the plant. Until now, such abilities were known only is creatures with a central nervous system.

Further work is underway, they said, to study the underlying mechanisms of this new mode of plant communication and its possible adaptive implications for the anticipation of plant stresses.

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