Plants can use underground communication to find out when neighbors are stressed

May 2, 2018, Public Library of Science
Graphical illustration of above ground interactions between neighboring plants by light touch and their effect on below-ground communication. Credit: Elhakeem et al (2018)

Corn seedlings that grow close together give off underground signals that impact the growth of nearby plants, reports a study published May 2, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Velemir Ninkovic from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden, and colleagues.

Plants have developed complex, chemical systems of communication to compensate for their immobile lifestyle. Many of their messages take the form of chemicals secreted by roots into the soil, which are detected through the roots of nearby . These secretions tell plants whether their neighbors are relatives or strangers and help them direct their accordingly.

To better understand how aboveground interactions affect this underground communication system, the authors of the present study stressed corn seedlings and then looked for growth changes in nearby siblings. They brushed the corn leaves to simulate the touch of a nearby plant leaf and then collected the chemicals secreted by the roots in the seedling's growth solution. New plants transferred into that growth solution responded by directing their resources into growing more leaves and fewer roots than control plants.

The authors also tested newly germinated seedlings to see if they could detect differences in growth solutions from plants that had been touched and those that had not been disturbed. The seedling's primary grew preferentially toward solutions from untouched plants, suggesting that it could differentiate between the two solutions.

The researchers demonstrated that even brief disturbances aboveground can lead to changes in underground communication that cause nearby plants to change their growth strategies. They note that researchers should take into account the extent to which they touch plants during an experiment, such as occurs while taking measurements, as the effects on touched plants and their neighbors have the potential to impact experimental results.

Lead author Velemir Ninkovic says: "Our study demonstrated that changes induced by above ground mechanical contact between plants can affect below ground interactions, acting as cues in prediction of the future competitors."

Explore further: Root exudates affect soil stability, water repellency

More information: Elhakeem A, Markovic D, Broberg A, Anten NPR, Ninkovic V (2018) Aboveground mechanical stimuli affect belowground plant-plant communication. PLoS ONE 13(5): e0195646. doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0195646

Related Stories

Root exudates affect soil stability, water repellency

April 18, 2018

As the growing season progresses, you might not notice much about what's happening to plants under the soil. Most of us pay attention to new shoots, stems, leaves, and eventually the flowers and crop we intend to grow. We ...

Stressed seedlings in space

November 8, 2017

Life on Earth has a myriad of problems, but gravity isn't one of them – staying grounded means organisms can soak up the light and heat that enables growth. 

Can a plant be altruistic?

November 11, 2009

The concept of altruism has long been debated in philosophical circles, and more recently, evolutionary biologists have joined the debate. From the perspective of natural selection, altruism may have evolved because any ...

Hormone keys plant growth or stress tolerance, but not both

January 17, 2018

Plants that grow well tend to be sensitive to heat and drought, and plants that can handle those stresses often have stunted growth. A Purdue University plant scientist has found the switch that creates that antagonism, opening ...

Plants 'talk' to plants to help them grow

May 6, 2013

Having a neighborly chat improves seed germination, finds research in BioMed Central's open access journal BMC Ecology. Even when other known means of communication, such as contact, chemical and light-mediated signals, are ...

Recommended for you

Researchers engineer a tougher fiber

February 22, 2019

North Carolina State University researchers have developed a fiber that combines the elasticity of rubber with the strength of a metal, resulting in a tougher material that could be incorporated into soft robotics, packaging ...

A quantum magnet with a topological twist

February 22, 2019

Taking their name from an intricate Japanese basket pattern, kagome magnets are thought to have electronic properties that could be valuable for future quantum devices and applications. Theories predict that some electrons ...

Good dog? Bad dog? Their personalities can change

February 22, 2019

When dog-parents spend extra time scratching their dogs' bellies, take their dogs out for long walks and games of fetch, or even when they feel constant frustration over their dogs' naughty chewing habits, they are gradually ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.