The secret life of plant networks

October 10, 2007 at 3:00 am Leave a comment

Kim photoEveryone has secrets. Now I’m finding even plants have secrets. Plants such as strawberry and clover can instant message each other along a linked network. These types of plants send out runners along or under the ground and the runners become new buds. Eventually, you end up with an entangled network that shares food, water and….communication.

Scientists have discovered that during times of stress, say if plants are being attacked by some nasty fungus or leaf-eating insect, the network buzzes into action sending messages about imminent danger. The message is sent through the phloem – a tube system plants use to transport organic compounds like carbohydrates – and plants who receive the message beef up their resistance in order to face the danger. The plants undertake chemical changes to make their leaves less tasty to a caterpillar for example or harder to nibble on. But these defensive changes inhibit the ability of the network plants to grow so I’m hoping that the plants are pretty smart when it comes to knowing there’s a real danger out there. The fitness of the network relies on a plant being able to communicate with its neighbour. If the neighbour has been knocked out, then the plant second down the line will be more vulnerable to attack. Plant networks are also capable of spreading viruses.

I’m writing this post on my balcony, sitting opposite a lot of plants with interconnecting runners (see photo). I bet these plants are all whispering: “those humans are onto us at last, we’d better use secret code from now on”!

Source: National Geographic


Entry filed under: Complexity, Nature.

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