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Everybody needs good neighbours… even plants

New research out of Cornell University has suggested plants can communicate with each other when under attack from pests.

This plant-to-plant signalling is made possible by what are known as plant volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which act as a major means of information transfer between organisms.

For the project, Andre Kessler, Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University, focused on Solidago altissima, a species of goldenrod trees native to the Northeast USA, and monitored the specific impact of the goldenrod leaf beetle.

Professor Kessler said one of the surprising discoveries was that when the plants came under attack, their scents — which are carried by VOCs — become similar.

“So, they kind of converge on the same language, or the same warning signs, to share the information freely,” Professor Kessler said.

The research found neighbouring plants recognise the warnings provided via the VOCs and prepare for the perceived threat as a result.

Modifying VOC emissions to respond to damage caused by pathogens or feeding herbivores has long been seen as an adaptive behaviour of plants.

“What we very often see when plants get attacked by pathogens or herbivores is, they change their metabolism,” Professor Kessler said.

“But it’s not a random change — in fact, those chemical and metabolic changes are also helping them cope with those attackers. It’s very much like our immune system: though plants don’t have antibodies like we have, they can fight back with pretty nasty chemistry.”

The emitting of VOCs also helps attract predacious insects to kill the herbivore posing the threat, before it can do serious damage to the plant and its neighbours.

This plant-to-plant communication via airborne VOC cues could make plants the ideal model system to help develop a better understanding about information sharing and communication between many different types of organisms.

Sources: Current Biology and Phys.org

Posted Date: December 17, 2019

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