Plants Can ‘Warn’ Their Neighbors of a Herbivore Attack
We’ve known and observed for a while how animals warn one another of imminent danger from predators. Researchers from the University of Tokyo have now found that plants, too, do a similar thing through a process called “volatile signaling.”
Essentially, a plant damaged by herbivores releases a “scent” for other plants nearby to detect and trigger “anti-herbivore defence systems.”
Published in Plant Physiology last month, the study drew from existing evidence to examine how exactly plants activated their defences. “Surrounding undamaged plants exposed to odors emitted from plants eaten by pests can develop resistance to the pests,” study author Gen-ichiro Arimura, professor at the Tokyo University of Science, said.
“Plants perceive volatiles emitted from herbivore-damaged neighboring plants to urgently adapt or prime their defense responses to prepare for forthcoming herbivores,” the study noted.
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Previous studies showed how field mustard and soybean plants, when grown around mint plants, activated a defense system “as a result of “eavesdropping” on mint volatiles,” Science Daily reported. As far back as 1983, scientists discovered that willow, poplar, and maple trees could produce “bug repellant” chemicals when their neighboring trees were subject to insect attacks.
“The debate is no longer whether plants can sense one another’s biochemical messages — they can — but about why and how they do it,” Wired noted, in 2013. Incredibly, a study from the same year found that the same species of plant also engages in wound signalling through electric signals.
The present study shows how a process called “epigenetic regulation” is involved. This refers to the regulation of genes in response to environmental stimuli and factors.
The discovery that epigenetics has a role to play in what is colloquially dubbed the “talking plants” phenomenon has implications for organic cultivation — understanding how this communication works can enhance pest control and reduce our dependence on pesticides, paving way for more sustainable food production.
“The effective use of plants’ natural survival strategies in production systems will bring us closer to the realization of a sustainable society that simultaneously solves environmental and food problems,” Arimura added.