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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Talking Plants

Author: Hugh Bollinger/Friday, August 15, 2014/Categories: natural history, plants

In the Marvel space cowboy epic, Guardians of the Galaxy, a talking tree was a lead character. Groot didn't say much, only one repeated sentence, but in the end he saved the day. Increasingly, plant research is showing that these green creatures use surprisingly sophisticated ways to communicate. We're just beginning to decipher their botanical languages and what they tell us about the plant world and potentially new bio-control products.

It is well known that many plant species use chemistry for protection and other defensive purposes. Allelopathy ---the ability of one plant species to exude chemicals into the soil that prevents germination and growth of competing species---has been ecologically researched for years; pines and conifers produce  terpenes in the bark to resist insect attacks; and anyone who has ever enjoyed the pleasure of smelling a flower's perfume will understand the draw for pollinating insects searching out a fragrant attraction.

Now 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 their report in Science, the new findings open a window on how plants communicate on the molecular level. The reports lead author Jim Westwood, in the  Department of Plant Pathology , commented:
“The discovery of this novel form of inter-organism communication shows that this is happening a lot more than any one has previously realized.”


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

According to the Virginia Tech announcement, Westwood investigated "the relationship between a parasitic plant and two host plants. In order to suck moisture and nutrients out of the host plants, the parasite used use an appendage, a haustorium , to penetrate the plant tissues. During this interaction, a transport of RNA between the two species occurred. RNA translates information from DNA, which is an organism’s blueprint. The genetic transfer guided the parasite, like an open molecular dialogue, allowing it to freely communicate with the host. The communication may have dictated what the host should do, such as lowering its defenses so that the parasitic could more easily attack it." This vampire plant in action can be seen in a time-lapse video produced by the lab:

Parasitic Plant Communication Time-lapse (credit: Virginia Tech)

The new plant research could lead someday to sophisticated plant pest control measures based on thes communication tools reducing the need for synthetic pesticides.

Perhaps Groot will have a good deal more to say in the movie sequel as well.

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