Researchers have long been aware that many plants use a variety of mechanisms to perceive and react to changes in their environments. Depending upon the type of signal, whether it be a light or chemical signal, plants can change their morphologies accordingly. The signals are first detected by some type of receptor in the plant which in turn transmits a signal to the nucleus of the cells involved. Then the plant cells cause the rest of the plant to respond. These responses can include flowering, fruit ripening, germination, photosynthetic regulation, shoot and root development and even adjusting the position of the leaves to track the sun.
The one thing that all of these signaling mechanisms have in common is that they are unique to each plant. One part of a plant can signal another part of the plant, but the signals are not shared from plant to plant. At least that is what they thought until recently when a team of researchers at the South China Agricultural University discovered that some plants can actually communicate with each other with the help of fungi.
About 80% of plants have some form of fungi associated with their roots. The fungi form a fine network of white threads called mycorrhizae. Since fungi cannot produce their own nutrients, they use their mycorrhizae to take up water and minerals from the soil and exchange them with their plant host for the nutrients they need.
In the study conducted by the Chinese scientists, they grew pairs of tomato plants in pots. Some of the pairs of tomato plants were allowed to develop the fungi network in their roots and others were kept from it. The researchers then exposed one of the plants to a fungus that causes early blight. The top parts of the plants were sealed off from each other so that no cross contamination would occur. Sixty-hours later, they exposed the second tomato plant to the early blight causing fungus.
Those plants that had been allowed to develop the fungal root network had fewer instances of early blight. Not only was the first plant to be infected less likely to develop the blight, but the second plant was also less likely to be blighted. Plants that did develop blight exhibited milder symptoms than those that were not allowed to develop the fungal root network.
The researchers concluded that the tomato plants had communicated with each other through the mycorrhizal network, which they dubbed “the internet of plant communities”. Another scientist suggests that the plant internet system could allow for signal proteins to be relayed from plant to plant over distances of many yards or meters. It has also been suggested that there may be communication between the roots of different species of plants. If further testing in the field supports this new lab findings, as the article states, “many plants could well be chatting away beneath our feet”.
Other scientists want to further explore the fungal root network’s effects in relation to agricultural purposes. Those plants that are heavily cultivated with sufficient supplies of water and fertilizers don’t develop the mycorrhizal fungal threads, which in turn might make them miss out on some health benefits such as disease and insect resistance.
Personally, I’m not sure I would have called it the Internet of the plant communities’ as they can’t search for information like so many of us do. However, it could be called the telecommunication system of plant communities as they do seem to be talking to each other. Either way, I just love good science that continually surprises us with new and unique information about the world we live in. Even the plant world has so much to teach us about God’s Creation.