Plants, like humans, can warn each other of danger. But unlike with humans, you won’t be able to hear the warning.
That’s because the warning comes in the form of chemicals that plants release when they are harmed.
A new study published in Nature Communications found that injured plants release certain chemicals that can enter the inner tissues of healthy plants and trigger a defense response.
The study not only helps scientists better understand how plants communicate with each other, but also has massive implications for the future of farming.
How plants talk to each other
The study is significant because it is the first time scientists have been able to “visualize plant-to-plant communication,” senior author of the study Masatsugu Toyota told The Washington Post.
By crushing leaves and having insects eat part of the leaves, the researchers were able to release chemicals called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that enter the the inner tissues of neighboring healthy plants in order to “induce various defense responses.”
They then used these chemicals on healthy plants. To see how the plants reacted, the team used what is called “calcium signaling.”
Essentially, the researchers genetically modified the plants so calcium ions inside the plants’ cells would become fluorescent when activated.
When healthy plants were introduced to VOCs, the plants would fluoresce, signaling that the chemicals had entered the inner tissues of the plant, which would then activate certain defense mechanisms.
For example, a plant “may start producing certain proteins to inhibit insects from munching on them, giving the insects diarrhea,” Toyota told the Post.
‘Hijacking’ plants and the future of farming
Harnessing these defense responses could revolutionize farming by using them protect plants from threats — including drought and insects — before the threat even occurs.
“We can probably hijack this system to inform the entire plant to activate different stress responses against a future threat or environmental threats, such as drought,” Toyota stated.
The result could be what would amount to a vaccine for plants — immunizing them against threats like droughts before they happen.