Smart Plants

by Alex B 2 years ago in evolution / science

Natural Intelligence in all its Beauty.

Smart Plants

The Audacious Carnivorous Pitcher Plant

Once upon a time,

A cruel Nature defies the Cephalotus follicularis with a plague of deadly pathogens and locust. The plants save themselves through the creation of an innate immune system made of ancient protein powerful enough to repel disease and their mortal winged enemy.

Innovation grants the species another breath, but their place in the natural world remains uncertain. Earth seeks revenge by draining precious phosphorus and nitrogen reserves crucial for the plant's survival out of her soil, upset by the failure.

These nutrients convert energy out of sunlight, support reproduction, and drive healing; a scarcity would starve the species into extinction, already weakened by the war against disease, but the Cephalotus refuse to yield.

They turn once again to the wisdom of protein to develop a new survival strategy by converting resources allocated to the immune system into biological weapons. The plants change their looks with vibrant colors and a cupped leaf to lure then trap insects into a waxy pitcher. The age-old shelled enemies fall into a pool of newly evolved digestive fluids known as enzymes, tired, and unable to escape. Chitinase breaks down the prey's hard exoskeletons while purple acid phosphatase extracts its protein.

Peace ensues, at last. Nature grants the newly carnivorous Pitcher plants the right to live as one of her own in her kingdom, impressed by the species' audacity and ingenuity.

Australian Pitcher Plant (Cephalotus follicularis)

Photo by Mitsuyasu Hasebe

400 million years later,

A research team from the University of Birmingham discovers plant cell clusters similar to the human brain. The small group found within the embryo assesses the environment and synchronizes reproduction with optimal weather conditions.


3D digital reconstructions of plant embryos

Image by University of Birmingham

The right timing to germinate is of utmost importance for the plant to assure the survival of its DNA. An early sprout could be fatal for the seeds, as would a late bud due to fierce competition.

The lead author of the study Geroge Bassel from the School of Bioscience at the University explains how their work exposes a fundamental separation between the components within a plant's decision-making center.

" In the human brain, this separation is thought to introduce a time delay, smoothing out noisy signals from the environment and increasing the accuracy with which we make decisions. The separation of these parts in the seed ‘brain’ also appears to be central to how it functions.’’ (Science Daily)

Fast forward one month,

Scientists from the Salk Institute in California use a high-precision 3D scan to measure changes in plant structure over time and find the same mathematical rule dictating growth as the sprout of brain cell connections in humans.

This data suggests a universal law of logic for branching across diverse biological systems.

Now, do these findings imply deeper connections between humans and these vegebrains? Experts know that plants lack the same nervous system as us, but the ability to adapt their diet and study the environment for reproduction purposes raises some questions: Are we missing critical variables? Is there something within the ocean of undiscovered knowledge that would connect plants to humans like never before in the history of science?

We are still students of the unknown, after all. Our scientific consciousness amounts to a pixel in the grand scheme of nature's wisdom.

Smart Plants

Plants process all the sensory data they gather to respond adequately. The sound of a caterpillar munching on leaves is enough to elicit a defensive reaction, for instance. They can sense gravity, water, or even obstruction in the way of their roots before touching them.

Plants send electrical signals and produce neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and other chemicals used by the human brain, although they have no nerve cells.

"We don't know why they have them, whether this was just conserved through evolution or if it performs some information processing function. We don't know. There's a lot we don't know," says journalist Michael Pollan.

The answer may lie underneath, where the human eye fails to see, deep within an internet of fungus connecting large and diverse populations of plants such as the ones found in London's Epping Forest. This "information superhighway" links widely separated individuals by the roots through thin threads known as mycelium, which allow them to communicate amongst themselves.

This partnership is known as mycorrhiza. Plants provide fungi with food in the form of carbohydrates in exchange for water or nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen.

“You could imagine the fungi themselves as forming a massive underground tree, or as a cobweb of fine filaments, acting as a sort of prosthesis to the trees, a further root system, extending outwards into the soil, " explains expert in mycorrhizal fungi Merlin Sheldrake to Robert Mcfarlane of the New-York Times.

This "Wood World Web" can also boost a plant's immune system. Large trees help out smaller ones with limited access to light and food through nutrient exchange, and those infected by harmful pathogens can even warn their neighbors through the network.

"These fungal networks make communication between plants, including those of different species, faster, and more effective," says chemical ecologist Kathryn Morris. "We don't think about it because we can usually only see what is above ground. But most of the plants you can see are connected below ground, not directly through their roots but via their mycelial connections." (BBC)

There is a dark side to this social network, much like human cybercrime. Plants like the phantom orchid who lack chlorophyll to create energy can steal nutrients from nearby trees using these fungal connections. Others can release chemicals that harm the other's chances of survival. The black walnut tree inhibits the growth of many plants such as tomatoes and cucumbers with a compound released from its leaves and roots, for instance.

Worms and insects might detect the presence of plants and their tasty roots through these chemical signals.

Mushrooms are mysterious forces of nature, an integral component of what scientists refer to as dark biological matter which also includes the trillions of bacteria living in and around us, representing 99% of what is left to isolate and study in a lab.

A significant gap remains between humans and nature's wisdom. Plant intelligence seems rooted in a mesh of hidden secrets, far beyond the realm of scientific knowledge—Can anyone honestly call themselves an expert considering all that is left to discover?

Reading List:

How Carnivorous Pitcher Plants Acquired A Taste For Meat

Scientists Discover Plant 'Brain' Controlling Seed Development

How Plants Grow Like Human Brains

New research on plant intelligence may forever change how you think about plants

Plants talk to eachother using an internet of fungus

The Secrets of the Wood Wide Web

Read next: Best Netflix Sci-Fi
Alex B

Pieces of myself through facts and fiction - A fallible human of the digital era. I bought the ticket, missed the ride, then tripped down the rabbit hole and woke up stranded with you in this strange matrix.

See all posts by Alex B