Sunday, April 1, 2012

Can Plants Communicate?

When I read an article which wrote about plants chattering with each other, I could not believe it at first. But, as I scanned through the information discussed, I got surprised about the fact that plants do send signals to each other to warn of upcoming danger.

A series of experiments were performed by a team of Dutch scientists headed by Josef Staufeur of Radboud University using a clover and a number of caterpillars. There is apparently a specialized internal network that assists plants to detect impending predators and potential threats.

There are a diverse group of plants like strawberry, reed, elderberry, and clover which innately create a set of networks (just like wires) to transmit signals to each other through the use of runners--root systems which are intertwined horizontally underground. These systems enable the plants to communicate. Although the runners are linked via vertical stems, they in turn produce fresh terminal buds that, in the long run, create another plant networks.

Mother Nature provided the "creepers" to form horizontal root networks that does usually form vertical growth but nonetheless it adds to the bulk of the connections.

The Experiment

A certain number of caterpillars were set free to gnaw at  a single clover leaf. One caterpillar approached a leaf and started chewing it. After awhile, the insect stopped what it was doing and left the partially chewed leaf. Another caterpillar was placed on the plant and was made to choose to eat the damaged one-- already alerted to put its guard up- or the fresh leaves. The same thing happened--the caterpillar moved to the  untouched leaf.


The chewing caterpillars will be warded off and moved on to feast on other non-influenced plants, as stated by Steufeur to LiveScience. "[They] comprehend the defense language used by plants as it is targeted directly to them."

The Amazing Machinery

When a part of the network plant system is under attack by invasive insects, the other segments of the network are warned through channeling an internal code to alert the rest of the network to up its mechanical and chemical defense--resulting to leaves with uninviting taste and texture. The system functions to scatter information to other plants in order to deter caterpillars.

According to the experts, the system of network movement of substances applies to several plant species of which the commercially traded one of them. There are also other unwanted plants that operate on the same principle such as bracken.

Although this [wired-up] linkage is astonishing, it also falls prey to viruses--these invaders go into the system and subtly manipulate the whole network, thus causing breakthrough infections. Plant viruses though are host-specific--they choose which plant to infect. The infected plants eventually develop resistance to the virus by identifying the original host and fortifying its defense against the invading organism. The agent has to find another host to infect but it makes it challenging for the viral agent if every network system is already updated.

Further details about the study is posted in the monthly journal of Oecologia.

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