Clever plants log on to chat network to send warning signals

Researchers in the Netherlands have found that plants have their own ‘chat systems’ that they can use to warn each other of impending dangers.

Contrary to conventional thinking that views plants as passive organisms waiting to be pulled up or eaten up, the scientists discovered that many plants spend their time communicating with one
another. A form of internal communications network was identified, which enables the plants to exchange information efficiently.

Many herbal plants such as strawberry, clover, reed and ground elder do not reproduce by seed, but increase in size by sending horizontal stems, known as runners, along or under the ground.
Through these stems, individual plants can remain connected with each other for a certain period of time, giving them the chance to share information via these internal channels in much the
same way as computer networks do.

Through experimental research, the scientists were also able to demonstrate that the clover plants use the network links to warn each other of enemies closing in and thus increase their chances
of survival. Using their internal signals, the plants under attack by caterpillars warn the other members of the network, which then strengthen their chemical and mechanical resistance so as to
be less attractive to the advancing insects. Thanks to this early warning system, the plants can stay one step ahead of their attackers and significantly limit the damage they cause.

‘We were very surprised how communicative plants really are. We looked at the common clover and discovered that they ‘talk’ through networks to warn of approaching attackers such as
caterpillars. This has very interesting parallels to electronic networks and early warning systems for military defence purposes,’ said Josef Stuefer, coordinator of the project from Radboud
University, Nijmegen, the Netherlands.

However, the team of researchers also found an important drawback to this vegetative network, similar to the one found in computer networks: viruses. Viruses can use the infrastructure to
rapidly spread through the connected plants. Like falling dominoes, the infection of one plant then leads to the infection of all plants within the network.

‘It appears that plants lack firewalls, so they become easily and quickly infected by viruses,’ said Dr Stuefer.

‘It is unclear as yet whether plants make use of e-mail and have effective anti spamming mechanisms,’ he added jokingly.

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