Western View: Plants Communicate

Taylor Hillman Environment, Features, Western View

Nasturtium flowers
In this week’s Western View, Len Wilcox shares how plants communicate with the environment around them.

Plants Communicate

New research confirms that plants communicate – it’s on a very basic level but they communicate! Not only that, they react when they feel threatened. This isn’t just interesting, it has big ramifications for agriculture.

Scientists at the University of Missouri have determined that plants respond to the sounds that caterpillars make when eating, and that the plants then respond with more defenses. In other words, plants actually react defensively to the sounds of being eaten alive.

Heidi Appel, senior research scientist in the Division of Plant Sciences at the University of Missouri, conducted the study with Rex Cocroft, professor in the Division of Biological Sciences. They placed caterpillars on a rockcress, a small flowering plant that is related to cabbage and mustard.

With a special laser-powered microphone and a reflector they measured and recorded the sound released by the movement of the leaf in response to the chewing caterpillar. Through testing they were able to determine that the plants recognized the vibrations as feeding sounds.

Scientists in Germany, at the Institute for Applied Physics in Bonn, went further with their work, and were able to show that when a leaf or a stem is cut off the plant releases ethylene gas over its entire surface.

The researchers said that the more a plant is subjected to stress, the more gas is released and the louder the signal they were able to pick up.

So… what does all this mean? How can these esoteric findings benefit the farmer?

Most likely, the first benefit will be in improving shelf life of products. The discovery could help fruit and vegetable producers develop better storage and transport procedures.

But even more, could we develop an early warning system for detecting insect infestations? That could increase yield and reduce cost, a welcome thing at any farm.

I’m Len Wilcox and that’s the Western View from AgNet West.