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Podcast: Tinder For Vegetables? How Plants Communicate With Potential Mates

22/09/2016 5:28 PM IST | Updated 17/10/2016 8:43 AM IST
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Conversations, communication... we think that these are things limited to interactions between humans and animals, the language that we can hear and see. But, what if there was a language we could not see, touch or hear? What if there was an ancient and complex mode of communication that we just haven't been aware of all this time? We're talking about communication between plants. Yes, plants! They talk amongst themselves using a special coded language that we knew nothing about—until now.


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Research shows that plants can communicate in many ways. One is through releasing air-borne Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs. These VOCs are similar to the perfume we wear, or air fresheners that we use. They spread through the sense of smell. Plants then use these organic smells to send out messages of distress or to signal that they are ready for pollination.

The first serious discussion about plant communication took place in 1983, between Jack Schultz and Ian Baldwin, biologists from Dartmouth. They studied poplars and sugar maples and deduced that plants "react" in certain ways when they are attacked. They also noticed that unharmed plants showed chemical reactions that were similar to those of their neighbours whose leaves were shredded. It seemed, basically, that the unharmed plant was somehow informed about the attack on its neighbour and was getting ready for attack by building up its defences. This discovery led to numerous studies being conducted on various specimens around the world.


Another discovery that took place at a later stage was that the plants did not communicate just to warn other parts or nearby plants about imminent danger. For example, when we inhale the grass or cut flowers, we actually smell the plants calling out for help, a sign that they send out to insects. These insects then arrive to eat the pests feeding on the plant-bodies. Here, the plant does not know that it has been harmed by a lawn mower and not an insect that it needs to get rid of.

You can listen to other episodes on The Intersection here.

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