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

Video VOA Reporter Tours Devastated Peshawar School

Islamist militants wearing military uniforms and strapped with explosives attacked a military run school Tuesday in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. At least 141 people were killed in the horrific attack, most of them young students. More

Video Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacks

Dropout rate at an all-time high in South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during 3-year civil war More

Tennessee Songbirds Fly Coop Long Before Tornadoes Arrive

Researchers say birds apparently alerted to danger by sounds at frequencies below range of human hearing More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
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.
US: Response to Sony Hack Will Be Proportionali
X
Aru Pande
December 19, 2014 1:45 AM
The White House says President Barack Obama considers the cyberattack on Sony Corp. a serious national security matter and that the U.S. will counter with an "appropriate response." VOA correspondent Aru Pande reports.
Video

Video US: Response to Sony Hack Will Be Proportional

The White House says President Barack Obama considers the cyberattack on Sony Corp. a serious national security matter and that the U.S. will counter with an "appropriate response." VOA correspondent Aru Pande reports.
Video

Video Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacks

The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school
Video

Video Nigerians Fleeing Boko Haram Languish in Camp Near Capital

In its five-year effort to impose Islamic law in northeastern Nigeria, the Boko Haram extremist group has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee. Some of those who ran for their lives now live in squalor on the edges of the capital, Abuja. Chris Stein reports for VOA.
Video

Video Putin Says Russian Economy Will Emerge Stronger

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said his country's sinking economy will not only recover but also become stronger, despite falling oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Detained Turkish Journalists Follow Teachings of US-Based Preacher

The Turkish government’s jailing of critical journalists has sparked international condemnation and is being seen as an effort to undermine the followers of an ailing Turkish preacher based in the United States. VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky has more.
Video

Video ‘Anti-Islamization’ Marches Increase Tensions In Germany

Anti-immigrant rallies in Germany have been building in recent weeks, peaking Monday night in the city of Dresden where tens of thousands of people turned out to demonstrate against what they call the ‘Islamization’ of the West. Germany has offered asylum to more Syrian refugees than any other country, and this appears to have set off the protests. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Aceh Rebuilt Decade After Tsunami, But Scars Remain

On December 26, 2004 there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean so powerful it caused the Earth’s axis to wobble a few centimeters. Onshore on the island of Sumatra, the resulting tsunami was devastating. A decade later, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where although there is little remaining evidence of the physical devastation, the psychological scars among survivors remain.
Video

Video Refugees Living in Kenya Long for Peace in the Home Countries

Kenya is host to numerous refugees seeking safe haven from conflict. Immigrants from Somalia face challenges in their new lives in Kenya. Ahead of International Migrants Day (December 18) Lenny Ruvaga has more for VOA News from the Kenyan capital.

All About America

AppleAndroid