Secret Language of Plants

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Secret Language of Plants

Plants don’t possess the same senses as humans but are pretty
good at forming a picture of the world around them. Plants can even influence and communicate with each other as well as other creatures. The evidence for plant communication is only a few decades old, but in that time it has leapt from electrifying discovery to decisive debunking to resurrection. Two studies published in 1983 demonstrated that willow trees, poplars ad sugar maples
can warn each other about insect attacks. Scientists observed
undamaged trees near ones under attack began pumping out
bud-repelling chemicals to ward off infestation. Somehow the
trees knew what their neighbors were experiencing and reacted
to it. This meant that brainless trees could send, receive and
interpret messages.

This idea was initially shot down as statistically flawed or irrel-
evant bringing research to a grinding halt. Today the science of plant communication is staging a comeback. Controlled experi-
ments and extensive research are overcoming early criticisms. It is now established that when bugs chew leaves plants respond
by releasing volatile organic compounds into the air. Majority of
tests confirm plants detect these airborne signals and ramp up
their production of chemical weapons in response. The question
is no longer whether plants can sense one another’s biochemical
messages but about how they do it. The answer to this question
could have a great impact. Farmers may be able to adopt this
chatter, tweaking food plants or agricultural practices so crops
may defend themselves better against predators.

Recently a plant signaling pioneer Ted Farmer of the University of
Lousanne discovered an almost entirely unrecognized way that
plants transmit information with electrical pulses.
These electrical pulses and a system of
voltage based signaling is reminiscent of the animal nervous system. Plants have
very different systems then animals however
we may have dramatically underestimated
their capabilities. To prove that electrical
signals are indeed at work, Ted Farmer’s
team placed microelectrodes on the leaves
and leaf stalks of Arbidopsis Thaliana and
allowed Egyptian cotton leaf worms to feast
away. Within seconds, voltage changes in the tissue radiated out
from the site of damage toward the stem and beyond. As the waves surged outward, the defensive compound jasmonic acid accumulat-ed. Further research showed that the plant had the ability to alter its nutritional quality in response to infestation.

In the lab, when insects were fed leaves from infested trees, they
grew more slowly. The insects growth was also stunted when fed
leaves from undamaged plants nearby. Almost every green plant
that’s been studied releases its own cocktail of volatile chemicals
and many species register and respond. For example. The smell of
cut grass may be pleasant to us, but to plants signals danger on the
way. The possibility that plants routinely share information isn’t just
intriguing botany, it could be a means to improve crop resistance to
pests. The science of plant talk is challenging long-held definitions of
communication and behaviors as the sole province of animals. Each
new discovery changes what we thought we knew about what plants
do and what they can do.

To learn what else they are capable of we have to try to toss out our
old beliefs and maybe if we try to be very quiet and listen they will
reveal their secret language.

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