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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Talking Trees

Author: Hugh Bollinger/Tuesday, August 6, 2019/Categories: natural history, plants

Groot (credit: Walt Disney-Marvel Studios, Wikipedia)

In the space epic, Guardians of the Galaxy, a talking tree was a lead character. Groot didn't say too much, he only one uttered sentence, but in the end he saved the day. Increasingly, research on plants has shown that these green organisms use surprisingly sophisticated ways to communicate. We're just beginning to decipher this botanical language, what it tells us about the plant world, and what new products might be developed.

It is well known that certain plants and trees use chemistry to protect and defend themselves. Allelopathy, the ability of a plant of one species exudes a chemical to prevent the germination or growth of a competing species, has been studied for years. Pines and conifers produce terpenes in their trunks to resist insect attacks and anyone who has enjoyed a flower's perfume will understand the draw a fragrance can have on pollinating insects.

Investigators at Virginia Tech College of Agriculture have discovered a new form of plant communication, one that allows plants to share genetic information with each other. Publishing by the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), their findings opened a window on how plants communicate at the molecular level. Plant physiologist Jim Westwood with the Department of Plant Pathology, commented: “The discovery of this novel form of inter-organism communication shows that this is happening more than anyone has previously realized.”

         Parasitic Plant Attacks Sugar Beet with DNA  (credit: Virginia Tech)

According to the announcement, the relationship between a parasitic plant and two host plants were uncovered. In order to suck moisture and nutrients from its host, a parasite used use an appendage, a haustorium, to penetrate the plant's tissues. During this interaction, the transport of RNA between the two species occurred. (RNA translates information from DNA, an organism’s blueprint.) The genetic transfer guided the parasite, like an open dialogue, allowing it to freely communicate with the host. This interaction may have dictated how the host reacted, such as lowering its chemical defenses so the parasitic could more easily attack it.

Plant and tree communication has been the subject of expanding research now including entire forest ecosytems.

Such knowledge could lead to sophisticated, new pest control measures reducing the need for petro-chemical pesticides. It may also allow a deeper understanding of ecological symbiosis, restoration, and sustainability. Groot may save the day again!




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