Revenge of the plants: Rise of the chemical defenses

Recent research has shown that plants may have the ability to communicate with one another, warning other nearby plants of incoming threats. Research from the University of Missouri’s Bond Life Service Center adds one more element to plant communication: listening.

“Plants respond to outside influences in their environment in ways that we do,” Heidi Appel, an investigator at Bond Life Services Center and a senior research scientist at the Division of Plant Sciences in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, said. “Although, the exact responses may look a little different.”

Appel is talking about how the Arabidopsis mustard plant is able to “hear” its predator, the cabbage butterfly caterpillar, through chewing vibrations that reverberate through the leaves and the stems. The plant reacts with chemical defenses.

The finding isn’t so novel in knowing that plants can respond to vibrations—but why the plants have such an ability has alluded scientists.

Using specialized lasers, scientists were able to uncover the mustard plant’s secrets.

Appel worked with Rex Cocroft, a professor of biological services at the university, on the project.

Cocroft recorded sounds that the caterpillar made while enjoying its meal on the plant and played it back to the plant. Appel, in turn, looked at how the plant responded chemically to the predator.

Through their findings, the scientists discovered that the plant ignored vibrations from environmental factors such as wind or other vibrations not in the same frequency as the chewing caterpillar. The plant was able to “turn on” the defenses when the sound of the chewing was played to them.

“Understanding how plants detect and respond to sounds in their environment gives us new ways to help plants defend themselves against their insect pests,” Appel added.

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