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article imageStudy: Plants react defensively to being eaten

By Anne Sewell     Jul 3, 2014 in Science
Missouri City - Following various studies, a report has been published by the University of Missouri-Colombia (MU) speculating that plant growth and reaction is influenced by sound, wind and touch.
For instance, as a caterpillar eats the leaves of a plant, the plant respond to the sounds made and launches defenses against the attack.
Heidi Appel, senior research scientist in the Division of Plant Sciences in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources and the Bond Life Sciences Center at MU, said:
“Previous research has investigated how plants respond to acoustic energy, including music.”
“However, our work is the first example of how plants respond to an ecologically relevant vibration. We found that feeding vibrations signal changes in the plant cells’ metabolism, creating more defensive chemicals that can repel attacks from caterpillars.”
The studies were run in conjunction with Rex Cocroft, professor in the Division of Biological Sciences at MU.
During the study, researchers placed caterpillars on the leaves of Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant related to cabbage and mustard. They then used a special laser microphone on a leaf to measure the sounds and movement of the leaf, responding to the chewing caterpillar.
Once they had the recordings of the vibrations caused by the feeding caterpillar, Cocroft and Appel played back these recordings to one set of similar plants. Using a second set of plants, they played back only silence.
Following this, they allowed caterpillars to feed on both sets of plants and researchers established that plants that had previously been exposed to the vibrations produced more mustard oils, which is toxic to many caterpillars, in an effort to repulse their advances.
“What is remarkable is that the plants exposed to different vibrations, including those made by a gentle wind or different insect sounds that share some acoustic features with caterpillar feeding vibrations did not increase their chemical defenses,” Cocroft said. “This indicates that the plants are able to distinguish feeding vibrations from other common sources of environmental vibration.”
Researchers will now concentrate future efforts on how the plants actually sense the vibrations, what features of the signal are key, and how these vibrations interact with other aspects of the plant to produce protective responses against pests.
In the future researchers hope to find ways to protect other plants, such as food crops, from insect pests in a less toxic way than with pesticides.
The above video shows more detail of the research carried out. The full report has been published in the journal Oecologia.
More about University of MissouriColombia, College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, Bond Life Sciences Center, Caterpillars, Plant
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