Science fact or fiction? Talking plants

It is estimated that up to 7,000 languages are spoken globally; some continents feature thousands of languages, such as Asia, where others only have hundreds, such as Europe. There are languages that are spoken by billions, and an estimated 46 languages are spoken by just one person.

But there is another language emerging from the world that we are just beginning to hear and understand, and it’s coming not from the mouths and minds of humans at all. Rather, we’re finding languages in our plants.

While their communication is lost on the human ear, it turns out that plants are rather protective of one another.

Their messages are spread through a sort of “chemical smoke signal,” according to a report from Time, as it sends messages to nearby plants warning them about disease or infection so the nearby plants are able to more successfully defend themselves.

Researchers in Japan used tomato plants to test the theory of communication. Placing the plants inside tubes, they placed one plant infected by a cutworm caterpillar in an upwind chamber and an uninfested plant in the downwind chamber. Later, when the downwind plants were exposed to the caterpillar, their defenses were stronger than the plants that had not been exposed to a sick neighboring plant.

The researchers also analyzed leaves from exposed and unexposed plants. In the over 8,000 compounds they identified, a substance called HexVic stood out, showing up more frequently in exposed plants. When the substance was fed to the cutworm caterpillars, the caterpillars’ survival rate was reduced by 17%.

These findings sparked an idea: could this be the source of the “language” of plants?

Tests confirmed the hypothesis. Isolating a precursor of HexVic, they wafted the chemical over uninfested plants, which then began to produce HexVic. Another test showed that uninfested plants do not inherently have the precursor chemical; it must be built up by the stimulation from from the early warning messages released by their neighboring plants.

The communication could be happening in many more plants than simply tomatoes, and they may be relaying other messages. The full extent of the communication between plants is still unclear, but it is a step in a direction to better understanding of the chemical (and conversational) properties of the natural world.

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