News / Science & Technology

Plant's Chemical 'Language' Could Help Farmers Target Pests

In Professor Jack Schultz's laboratory at the University of Missouri, special equipment is used to read plants' chemical 'language.'
In Professor Jack Schultz's laboratory at the University of Missouri, special equipment is used to read plants' chemical 'language.'
Zulima Palacio

Talking plants might sound like characters in a fairy tale. But recent scientific studies have revealed that plants communicate with each other and with other living things in a surprising number of ways. To understand them, scientists say, we just have to learn their language. Farmers are especially interested in what plants have to say.

At the University of Alberta in Canada, Ecology Professor James Cahill studies plant roots.  He's been doing that for years, and one of the things he's learned is that while plants can't walk away from trouble, they can still respond to it, and to a wide range of stimuli, both good and bad.

"Plants are able to communicate with all sorts of organisms. They can communicate with giant bacteria, with other plants and with insects.  They do this chemically," said Cahill.

Plant scientists are just beginning to understand this chemical "language." Cahill says studies have shown, for example, that plants can evaluate conditions in their immediate environment and take appropriate actions.  But is that a sign of intelligence?

"I don't think plants have brains, but we do see plants that are able to integrate information. They can respond to nutrients and competitors," Cahill noted.  "We as people need a brain to show these complicated behaviors, but a brain isn't needed by all species to show complicated behaviors."

Plants can react to sounds. University of Missouri chemical ecologists Heidi Appel and Jack Schultz recorded the subtle chewing noises of a caterpillar eating a plant. Being eaten stimulated the plant’s defenses. But when the sounds were played to another plant that was not being eaten, they triggered a defensive response.

Plants have an ability, for example, to signal distress, caused by anything from temperature extremes to an insect attack. Schultz said when a plant senses that it's being eaten, it releases a chemical vapor that alerts other plants nearby.

"Their language is a chemical language, and it involves chemicals that move through the air that are volatile, and most of all are odors that we are familiar with," Schultz explained.

Schultz says these chemicals move through the air in very low concentrations and so far they have been identified only in laboratory settings.  He says scientists first discovered this phenomenon when they exposed a group of plants to an insect that eats them.

"All plants responded to the attack by changing their chemistry to defend themselves," Schultz recalled.  "But we were quite surprised to find that nearby plants also changed their chemistry to defend themselves, even though they were not part of the experiment."  

Studies have also shown that when plants are under attack release aromatic chemicals. Those chemicals attract friendly insects that attack the bugs eating the plant.  Schultz says this chemical signaling can be easily detected by one of nature's most sophisticated sniffers, dogs.

"Some vineyards in California are using dogs to sniff vines that have pest infestations. So it can be done if you have the right nose," Schultz noted.

Schultz and his colleagues are working to develop an electronic version of a dog's nose. When taken into a farmer's field, it would help growers apply pesticides only to those plants under insect attack.

In the end, plants' ability to communicate their needs - and our ability to understand them - could help farmers reduce the use of toxic chemicals, cut operating costs and limit damage to the environment.

You May Like

Syrian Rebels Poised for Anti-Russia Collaboration

Forty-one insurgent groups issue joint statement vowing retaliation for Russian air offensives More

Political Maneuver Revives Export-Import Bank's Chances

Parliamentary tactic gets bill out of committee, but it faces opposition in the Senate More

Beijing Warns US on S. China Sea Patrols

Warning follows news reports Thursday that US military is planning to sail warships close to artificial islands Beijing has been aggressively building More

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdrawsi
Jim Malone
October 09, 2015 12:32 AM
The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

VOA Blogs