Did You Know Your Corn is Talking to You?

Posted in: Farming     

It may seem like the plot of a really bizarre science fiction movie, but what I am about to tell you is true: Your crops are communicating with each other and they could be “talking” about you!  

Let me step back for a second and first explain what I mean when I say your crops are “talking”.  

Plant communication can take a variety forms including the following...

• Sound (i.e. Acoustic Communication)

• Airborne Chemicals 

• Root Network

Sound (i.e. Acoustic Communication)

According to research by The University of Western Australia, plants not only respond to sound but can communicate with each other by making a clicking noise.  The researchers found this clicking noise that is emitted by the root system of a corn plant, is emitted at a frequency of 220 Hertz.  While this is a fairly new study, what we do know is that plants not only “vocalize” at 220 hertz, but they can respond to the 220 Hertz hum by leaning towards it.  

So, what do researchers know about acoustic communication so far?

Preliminarily, Dr. Gagliano suggests that acoustic communication could be the reason a plant can recognize whether it’s growing next to a beneficial or non-beneficial plant neighbor, with all other known routes of pant communication cut off1.

Bees will buzz at the necessary noise frequency to activate a release of pollen from flowering plants.

Airborne Chemicals

Plants can release a number of different airborne chemicals known as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s).  Scientists studying in the Great Basin Desert of southwestern Utah are proving that plants can communicate with their neighbors in the form of; “cries for help, invitations, even warnings, each in the form of odor molecules”.  

What type of information can plants communicate through VOC’s? 

Plants can emit chemicals that will not only repel predators, but invite their allies.  

Plants neighboring those that are under attack can read the chemical signal and will prepare themselves for attack.

The chemical cues that plants release can actually be very specific. Dr. Moraes a professor at Pennsylvania State University suggests that when a crop such as corn is fed on by a caterpillar it will release a chemical “call for help” to its allies, but this chemical call will not just ask for any ally it’s asking for the predator of the caterpillar the wasp3.

Baldwin, a biologist that has worked with VOC’s for over 20 years, has stated that he believes "Eventually, we will use the information we get to breed agricultural crops that call out to their insect allies more loudly and more consistently”3!  As much as 90 percent of attacks from plant eating predators could be reduced by the plant releasing these VOC’s3.  

Root Network

Plants can share information via their root systems as well; they utilize an intricately connected network of threadlike fungi called Mycorrhizal Fungi.  Mycorrhizal Fungi translated literally means a fungus with a symbiotic relationship with plant roots. The fungi receives carbohydrates from the plant roots, while the plant benefits with better water retention,  improved soil health, nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, and lastly the fungi aids in communication between plants.  The fungi acts as the mediator between the roots of the plant communities, relaying messages from plant to plant.  Scientists have come to describe this plant/fungus relationship as a sort of super highway referred to as the underground “web”, allowing plants to link up to their neighbors and share information, messages, or re-allocate nutrients.  

Researchers know that the vast majority of all plants on the planet, around 90%, are connected by these fungi networks4.  It benefits most important crops such as wheat, rice, maize and barley, however fungi connections are not as well established in canola, buckwheat, forage radish, camelina, and mustards4, .

So what information can plants communicate to each other via their root networks?

They could be warning their fellow plants of an impending attack; whether it be a pathogen, disease, stress, or predator.  

In addition, they can inform their counterparts of impending drought.  

They could even be determining if their neighbor is their kin, and if so, they could be reallocating their own resources and sharing them with their plant family5.  

Note also that plants can use all three of the above communication mechanisms simultaneously to make “decisions” about the messages they are receiving.  As scientists continue to dig in to the details of how plants communicate we can better utilize this information to breed crops that are not only resistant to pathogens or tolerant to a varying temperature range, but we may be able to select for those traits that make the best communicators.  Selecting for these “talkative” plants could mean a better plant community warning system that has the potential to drastically reduce the amount of overall damage from a pathogen or predator attack.

 

About the Author
Jessica Kohls

Jessica is a soil biologist with Dutch Openers. She has a BSc in Conservation Biology and a Post Graduate Degree in Microbiology.  If you’d like to read more of Jessica’s articles, please visit www.dutchopeners.com/blog.


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