Tel Aviv University researcher says plants can see, smell, feel, and taste

Jul 30, 2012

Increasingly, scientists are uncovering surprising biological connections between humans and other forms of life. Now a Tel Aviv University researcher has revealed that plant and human biology is much closer than has ever been understood — and the study of these similarities could uncover the biological basis of diseases like cancer as well as other “animal” behaviors.

In his new book What a Plant Knows (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and his articles in Scientific American, Prof. Daniel Chamovitz, Director of TAU’s Manna Center for Plant Biosciences, says that the discovery of similarities between and humans is making an impact in the scientific community. Like humans, Prof. Chamovitz says, plants also have "senses" such as sight, smell, touch, and taste.
Ultimately, he adds, if we share so much of our genetic makeup with plants, we have to reconsider what characterizes us as human.

These findings could prompt scientists to rethink what they know about biology, says Prof. Chamovitz, pointing out that plants serve as an excellent model for experiments on a cellular level. This research is also crucial to food security, he adds, noting that knowledge about plant genetics and how plants sense and respond to their environment is central to ensuring a sufficient food supply for the growing population — one of the main goals of the Manna Center.

Seeing the light

One of the most intriguing discoveries of recent years is that a group of plant genes used to regulate responses to light is also part of the human DNA. These affect responses like the circadian rhythm, the immune system, and cell division.

A plant geneticist, Prof. Chamovitz was researching the way plants react to light when he discovered an group of genes that were responsible for a plant “knowing” whether it was in the light or in the dark. He first believed that these genes were specific to plant life, but was surprised to later identify the same group of genes in humans and animals.

"The same group of proteins that plants use to decide if they are in the light or dark is also used by animals and humans," Prof. Chamovitz says. "For example, these proteins control two seemingly separate processes. First, they control the circadian rhythm, the biological clock that helps our bodies keep a 24 hour schedule. Second, they control the cell cycle — which means we can learn more about mutations in these genes that lead to cancer." In experiments with fruit flies who had a mutated version of one of these genes, Prof. Chamovitz and his fellow researchers observed that the flies not only developed a fly form of leukemia, but also that their circadian rhythm was disrupted, leading to a condition somewhat like permanent jet-lag.

Plants use light as a behavioral signal, letting them know when to open their leaves to gather necessary nutrients. This response to light can be viewed as a rudimentary form of sight, contends Prof. Chamovitz, noting that the plants “see” light signals, including color, direction, and intensity, then integrate this information and decide on a response. And plants do all this without the benefit of a nervous system.

And that's not the limit of plant "senses." Plants also demonstrate smell — a ripe fruit releases a "ripening pheromone" in the air, which is detected by unripe fruit and signals them to follow suit — as well as the ability to feel and taste. To some degree, plants also have different forms of "memory," allowing them to encode, store, and retrieve information.

Just like us

Beyond the genes that regulate responses to light, plants and humans share a bevy of other proteins and genes — for example, the genes that cause cystic fibrosis and breast cancer. Plants might not come down with these diseases, but the biological basis is the same, says Prof. Chamovitz. Because of this, plants are an excellent first stop when looking for a biological model, and could replace or at least enhance animal models for human disease in some types of research.

He is working alongside Prof. Yossi Shiloh, Israel Prize winner and incumbent of the David and Inez Myers Chair of Cancer Genetics at Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine, to understand how the Chamovitz discovered function in protecting human cells from radiation.

Explore further: 'Red effect' sparks interest in female monkeys

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User comments : 11

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baudrunner
3 / 5 (2) Jul 30, 2012
A life form truly is a community of cells.
Bewia
2.3 / 5 (3) Jul 30, 2012
They can talk as well.. Being green doesn't mean, you're stupid...
Rydog
Jul 30, 2012
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Skepticus
Jul 30, 2012
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Code_Warrior
1 / 5 (2) Jul 30, 2012
The lawn mower is known by the grass as the bringer of pain. If you listen carefully, you can hear the screams of the innocent blades of grass as the spinning blade ruthlessly chops them in half and mulches the severed bits as the sadistic human operator makes sure that no blade is missed in the blood lust.

The dandelion laughs at the grass: "I grow shorter each time I get cut! Eventually, the blades miss me altogether! But you silly grass, you continue to grow. Who is the stupid one now?"

The Dandelion enjoys teasing the grass, but realizes it has no defense against the sadistic humans and their chemical attacks. The entire plant kingdom knows that humans will not hesitate to use the nuclear option: Roundup.

So, the plants have decided to throw shear numbers at us! They sacrifice many in the hope that a few escape.
kevinrtrs
1.8 / 5 (5) Jul 31, 2012
Once one reads the heading of the article, there is of course the natural temptation to make plant into some kind of sentient beings that should not be touched. This is the logical conclusion one gets to just reading the comments made above.
I'm just so waiting for the green-fanatic that wants to set up protection for the rights of plants. Wonder what we'll have to eat then?
Satene
1 / 5 (2) Jul 31, 2012
I'm just so waiting for the green-fanatic that wants to set up protection for the rights of plants
Blue fanatics apparently came first...
roboferret
4 / 5 (4) Jul 31, 2012
We already knew plants were sensitive to light.
We already knew some plants were sensitive to touch.
We already knew plants signalled using pheremones.

Calling this "senses" isn't a discovery, its semantics.

It isn't a scientific paper - the guy is trying to shift a paperback. It might be an interesting book, but it's hard to detect anything novel from the synposis.
Shootist
3 / 5 (2) Jul 31, 2012
What a joke. Try to tell that to the settlers who chop, pull, bulldoze, burn Palestinians' olive trees...but I guess, that's one exception. Those tree don't count.


Hit the report button on this political crapmeister.
kochevnik
1 / 5 (2) Aug 01, 2012
A corollary of the Tel Aviv study proved that Palestinian plants do not see, smell, feel, or taste and should be bulldozed.
senaka_warnasuriya
3 / 5 (2) Aug 05, 2012
does it mean that plants are conscious?
Bewia
1 / 5 (1) Aug 05, 2012
It depends how the consciousness is defined. If its defined like way, in which objects reflect to change of external conditions, then even the bacteria and massive particles reflect to the gradients of fields, which are surrounding them. IMO consciousness could be defined like state of awareness, which enables to decide whether to react to the change of conditions or not in autonomous way. In this sense the plants aren't conscious, because they do react like automata: when some change happens, then the corresponding reaction always happens. But we can find some examples, when the reaction of plants is triggered with particular combination of conditions only... The purpose of this post isn't therefore to postulate some ultimate claims about plants - rather to bring the reflection about how commonly used concepts (consciousness, intelligence) are actually defined.
thematrix606
3.7 / 5 (3) Aug 08, 2012
And thus, forcing vegetarians everywhere, to switch to consuming air only and chewing on ice blocks.

xD