LOADING ...

Watch the Awesome Way in Which Plants Defend Themselves Against Threats

George Dvorsky Sep 14, 2018. 13 comments
Glutamate injected into a leaf triggers the defense signal.
GIF: Simon Gilroy/Gizmodo

We tend to think of plants as helpless, passive green blobs, but a fascinating new study, in which scientists used fluorescent light to visualize alarm signals within plants, shows how our photosynthesizing friends are able to mobilize their defenses.

New research published today in Science is providing an unprecedented view of the signaling action that happens within plants when they’re under attack. A second or two after a plant receives an injury, like a chomp from a caterpillar, a warning signal radiates from the location of the wound, spreading out through the entire plant in a process that takes fewer than 120 seconds. The plant, now aware that it’s under attack—or at least, as “aware” as a plant can be—can respond to the threat by releasing chemical countermeasures.

Scientists have known about this systemwide signaling system for quite some time, but the new study, conducted by researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Japan Science and Technology Agency, and several other institutions, is the first to show this remarkable defense mechanism in action. What’s more, the study offers new insights into the biological processes behind this nervous-system like signaling, which is still poorly understood.

“We do know that if you wound a leaf, you get an electrical charge, and you get a propagation that moves across the plant,” botanist Simon Gilroy, a professor at UWM and a co-author of the new study, said in a statement. “What triggered that electric charge, and how it moved throughout the plant, were unknown.”

Gilroy and his colleague Masatsugu Toyota, who led the research, suspected calcium had something to do with it. Calcium ions, which produce an electrical charge, are known to perform signaling duties in plants, particularly in response to changing environmental conditions. Scientists have struggled to visualize this movement within plants, leading to a rather fascinating solution. To watch the calcium move in real time, Toyota and his colleagues bioengineered plants to produce a protein that fluoresces around calcium, lighting up the interiors of plants like a Christmas tree. Using advanced microscopes and biosensors, the researchers were able to track the presence and volume of the calcium in response to various injuries, including caterpillar chomps, scissor snips, and damage caused by crushing.

While experimenting on mustard plants, the researchers watched the plants light up as the calcium surged away from the injury and toward their other leaves. The signal propagated at a rate of one millimeter per second, which is fast enough to reach the far corners of the plant in less than two minutes. The calcium pulses were able to spread by traveling through the plant’s vascular, or circulatory, system.

After the warning signal had fully propagated, the leaves began to release their defense-related hormones in preparation for future attacks. Plants, in addition to releasing chemicals that kickstart the repair process, can release noxious, insect-unfriendly chemicals.

This latest research expands upon the work done by Swiss scientist Ted Farmer, who previously showed that defense-related electrical signals depend on glutamate—an important neurotransmitter in mammals and a signaling agent in plants. In a secondary experiment, Toyota and his colleagues demonstrated that long-distance signaling disappears in plants that have had their glutamate-releasing powers taken away from them, via two specific genetic mutations. This strongly suggests that glutamate, when released at the site of an injury, triggers the burst in calcium—a previously undocumented action in plants.

Writing in an accompanying Science: Insights article, biologists Gloria Muday and Heather Brown-Harding said the researchers need to conduct future experiments to prove that it’s not the glutamate that’s moving long-distances around the plant, rather than the proposed calcium.

Pretty amazing for an immobile organism without a central nervous system. Plants can’t run away, or gnash back with tooth and claw, but they’re not completely defenseless, either.

[Science]

13 Comments

Other George Dvorsky's posts

This Rock Shelter in Ethiopia May Be the Earliest Evidence of Humans Living in the Mountains This Rock Shelter in Ethiopia May Be the Earliest Evidence of Humans Living in the Mountains

Archaeologists working in the Bale Mountains of Ethiopia have uncovered the earliest evidence to date of human habitation in a high-altitude environment. Living over 11,000 feet above sea level, these early mountaineers ate rodents to survive the harsh ice age conditions.New research published this week in Science describes the oldest known human occupancy of a high-altitude environment. Between 47,000...

Something Big Just Slammed Into Jupiter Something Big Just Slammed Into Jupiter

An amateur astronomer in Texas captured a rare sight earlier this week when an apparent meteor slammed into Jupiter’s thick upper atmosphere.On Wednesday, amateur astronomer Ethan Chappel was on the lookout for Perseid meteors, reports ScienceAlert. But his telescope was trained on Jupiter with the camera running. Later, after feeding the data into a software program designed to detect...

World’s Largest Frogs Are So Big, They Build Their Own Ponds World’s Largest Frogs Are So Big, They Build Their Own Ponds

New evidence shows that Goliath frogs—the world’s largest species of frog—construct their own ponds, providing a safe space for their tadpoles to grow.New research published today in the Journal of Natural History is the first to provide evidence of pond-building behavior in an African amphibian, namely the Goliath frog. This is the largest species of frog in the world,...

This Bottle of Vodka Was Made From Grain Grown Inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone This Bottle of Vodka Was Made From Grain Grown Inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Grains and water from Chernobyl’s dreaded exclusion zone have been used to produce a single bottle of vodka. Called ATOMIK, the vodka could revolutionize the way land is reclaimed in the radioactive region surrounding the beleaguered nuclear power plant.A collaboration involving scientists from the UK and Ukraine has produced radioactive-free vodka from crops grown in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone,...

Suggested posts

Damn, No Greenland Damn, No Greenland

President Deals is up to it again! Over the past week, word got out that the White House has been exploring some kind of arrangement to buy the autonomous Danish territory of Greenland—which in addition to giving the U.S. more military access to a strategic point of the globe, would enable American exploitation of its vast mineral wealth, freshwater...

Air Pollution From Cars Linked to Degenerative Eye Disease Air Pollution From Cars Linked to Degenerative Eye Disease

The effects of pollution on human health are often subtle yet wide-reaching. Case in point, a new study out Tuesday seems to show that heavy exposure to certain automobile fumes can raise the risk of developing a degenerative disease that steadily erodes eyesight.The disease is known as age-related macular degeneration, or AMD. AMD is characterized by the progressive destruction...

Despite Child Flu Deaths, U.S. Government Refuses to Vaccinate Children Detained in Border Camps Despite Child Flu Deaths, U.S. Government Refuses to Vaccinate Children Detained in Border Camps

Families detained along the U.S.-Mexico border in cramped holding centers are being left completely vulnerable to the flu, CNBC reported Thursday. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is currently not vaccinating detainees against the viral disease, nor do they plan to before the upcoming flu season this fall. The stated policy comes despite an earlier plea by several health experts...

A New Experiment Narrows Potential Properties of Dark Energy Particle A New Experiment Narrows Potential Properties of Dark Energy Particle

An experiment in the United Kingdom has failed to find evidence of a particle meant to explain most of the universe’s mass. But the search isn’t over.When cosmologists observe the way the universe expands, they find that present-day theories of matter can’t explain most of the universe’s energy. They call the unknown energy “dark energy,” and theorists have tried...

The UK Just Lost Its Measles-Free Status, and the U.S. Could Be Next The UK Just Lost Its Measles-Free Status, and the U.S. Could Be Next

Progress in fighting measles in Europe has taken a substantial step back. This week, the World Health Organization stripped the UK of its measles-free status, just two years after it commended the country for eradicating the virus locally. The UK’s fate could very well be a harbinger of what will happen to the United States amidst an infuriating anti-vaccination...

NASA Mission to Visit Jupiter's Moon Europa Move to Final Construction Phase NASA Mission to Visit Jupiter's Moon Europa Move to Final Construction Phase

A mission to sample Jupiter’s moon Europa for signs of life will move into its final design and construction phase, according to a NASA announcement.Scientists have long wondered whether the ice-covered moon could harbor life in a subsurface liquid water ocean. NASA has committed to a launch readiness date in 2025, though the mission could be ready as soon...

The Moon Shines Brighter Than the Sun... in Gamma Rays The Moon Shines Brighter Than the Sun... in Gamma Rays

The Moon is brighter than the Sun, if you’re measuring it in gamma rays. Sorta.NASA publicized this interesting factoid in a press release last week while promoting research by physicists Mario Nicola Mazziotta and Francesco Loparco at the National Institute of Nuclear Physics in Italy, who made observations using the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.Electromagnetic radiation, what we call light,...

MDMA-Assisted Therapy Shows Promise as Treatment for Alcohol Addiction MDMA-Assisted Therapy Shows Promise as Treatment for Alcohol Addiction

Supplementing psychotherapy with small doses of MDMA could be an effective strategy to prevent relapses of alcohol addiction in patients, an ongoing small clinical trial suggests. The research is yet another example of how scientists and doctors are finding or rediscovering therapeutic uses for recreational and illicit drugs.MDMA-assisted therapy is actually an old idea, which enjoyed some popularity in...

Hurricanes and Climate Change Might Make Spiders More Aggressive Hurricanes and Climate Change Might Make Spiders More Aggressive

Hurricanes could make spider colonies more aggressive over time, according to a new paper. Let’s add “avoiding extra-evil spider colonies” to our list of reasons to fight climate change, please and thanks.It’s obvious that hurricanes cause damage, but it’s hard to study how that damage might impact the evolution of the animals that survive the storm. Given that some...

Semen Smugglers, Spreadsheets, and Laughing to Death: Best Gizmodo Stories of the Week Semen Smugglers, Spreadsheets, and Laughing to Death: Best Gizmodo Stories of the Week

It’s been a weird one this week at Gizmodo, folks: From hacking buttplugs and realizing our dog photos have personally identifiable information in them to smuggled boar semen and an Arctic weather station hitting nearly 95 degrees Fahrenheit , we’ve been hard at work churning out the content you crave and that makes our heads hurt.Other fascinating stories from...

Language