We are in the middle of a pandemic, but the experience is different for everyone. This was expressed beautifully in an original tweet by Damian Barr, later expanded by another author into a poem. “We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm. Some are on super-yachts. Some have just the one oar.”
Plant geneticists seeking to understand the history of the plants we eat can decode the genomes of ancient crops from rare, well-preserved samples. However, this approach leaves significant gaps in the timelines of where and when many modern-day fruits, vegetables, and cereal crops evolved, and paints an incomplete picture of what they looked like. A Science & Society article details a unique approach to filling these gaps using art–and calls on museum goers and art aficionados to help find paintings that could have useful depictions.
Last week’s board meeting was incredible. That’s not something you normally hear after a meeting! What really struck me was just how global the Global Plant Council now is. The Board consists of representatives from 10 different countries on 5 continents (Chile, Mexico, Canada, UK, Spain, India, Italy, China, Japan and Australia). Every one of us at that meeting was in some kind of lockdown. I was overwhelmed with just how connected we all are. It was quite emotional.
Humanity’s impact on nature
All of humanity is in this pandemic together. But we are also all connected through nature: the atmosphere with rising CO2 changing our climate; the heartbreaking destruction of habitats around the world; and our need to grow and distribute enough food to feed everyone. These things are not independent from one another. There is increasing evidence that zoonotic diseases, like COVID-19, HIV-AIDS and SARS-1, are more likely to arise where habitat destruction leads to the increasing juxtaposition of people and wild animals.
This pandemic should be a wake-up call. Sustainability is not only important, it is essential. Ecosystems need to be conserved, not just because they have a right to be preserved for their own sakes, but for the health and well-being of the human population. It is arrogant of humans to think we can do whatever we like with nature. Right now, nature is coming back to bite us.
Plants around the world are being driven to extinction by excessive use of resources, land clearing and climate change. We don’t even know how many plants there are in the world. At the most basic level, we may be losing plants with unique chemicals that could be used to cure diseases, unique genotypes of crop wild relatives that could be a source of traits to improve agricultural productivity and so on.
Agriculture is responsible for 26% of global greenhouse gases emissions, 70% of the freshwater use and occupies 50% of the habitable land surface. Plant scientists around the world are working to document species diversity, design conservation reserves, collect seeds for storage in seed banks, develop more efficient crops that use less fertiliser and water and are resistant to pests and diseases without the need for the application of large volumes of agrichemicals.
The Global Plant Council
The Global Plant Council aims to increase the awareness plants, of the need to train plant scientists and to supply them with research funding. It seems crazy that we have to say this, but with a world inflicted with plant blindness, our first job is to get people to just open their eyes and see the plants around them and the central role they play. Just having an organisation called The Global Plant Council enables journalists and influencers to identify people to contact for comment in different countries. This is one reason why we are so keen to have representatives from all countries and from many different plant science organisations around the world.
Different media reach different audiences.
In the past two years we have grown our social media presence by 50% percent annually, largely due to the efforts of our Chief Communications Officer, Dr Isabel Mendoza (currently locked down in Valencia, Spain). We are also expanding into different languages with a Spanish Twitter account and a new Weibo account to reach our Chinese followers. English maybe the current international language of science but if we want to reach people across the world, we need to communicate in different languages and on different platforms.
Plans for the Future
At this years’ GPC annual meeting we were planning to run a workshop on science communication with a special workshop run by the award-winning Italian science journalist Michele Catanzaro. We always hold our meetings in conjunction with a larger plant science conference, rotating around the world – last year it was at the ICAR meeting in Wuhan, and this year we planned to meet in Torino, Italy at Plant Biology Europe 2020. The conference has, of course, been postponed due to the raging pandemic. We really hope we can hold this fantastic workshop one way next year.
The annual business meeting this year will still need to be held and we will do that virtually. This is not easy given all the different time zones, but instead of an imposition, we should instead celebrate that the GPC is now truly global. The Era we live in, the Holocene, is characterised by possibly the highest biodiversity in the history of our planet. As we move into the Anthropocene, that is changing. Let’s work together to minimize the damage. It’s not going to be easy, but without plants, it’s impossible.
Author: Prof. Ros Gleadow, President of The Global Plant Council
Re-published with permission from John Innes Centre. Thank you to James Piercy for sharing.
‘Science is not finished until it is communicated’, so said Sir Mark Walport, former medical scientist and the Chief Executive of the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Unsurprisingly, being in the Communications and Engagement team, we agree with Sir Walport, and there are a number of ways that science can and is communicated. We can do:
- press releases,
- use social media
- organise outreach events
- we have meetings
- write reports and labour over publishing peer-reviewed papers.
Another vital method for peer-to-peer communication is at scientific conferences. Hordes of scientists from a particular field, come together to showcase their latest research and to learn about the work of their peers, collaborators or competitors.
Alongside the oral presentations, or talks, a key way to communicate the latest research and results is through ‘poster sessions’. Here scientists, of all levels in their careers, present their latest discovery on a sheet paper or fabric, pinned to a board.
Poster sessions provide an ideal opportunity for peer-to-peer learning and should be an excellent experience for presenter and viewer.
As a presenter, this is a captive audience. There are large numbers of people who are interested in your field of research and they are all there to learn. They want to get their fill of new methods, exciting initial results and network with like-minded people from all over the world.
But in reality, poster sessions aren’t as useful or enjoyable as they should be. Why is that?
There is a burgeoning grass roots initiative led by Psychology PhD student Mike Morrison, that believes that one of the reasons for this is that the posters on display at these sessions aren’t designed in the optimal way for the environment and context they’re used in. In other words, the audience posters are created for aren’t given the information contained within them, in a way that allows them to access it.
User-centred design is the process of considering how an object will, or needs to be, used and designing it accordingly. For example, think of a door which can only open in one direction. From one side the door needs to be pulled and from the other pushed. Effective user design of that door, would mean that on the pull side of the door there is a handle, allowing the user to pull open the door and on the other side, no handle but a flat plate.
A pull handle works perfectly on the side of the door which needs to be pulled but hinders the user on the push side. The handle implies that the user should pull the door, potentially walking into it, before realising it doesn’t open in that direction and then pushing the door.
Why? Because a handle suggests to the user that door needs to be pulled and thus influences the user’s behaviour. Wasted time and potential (minor) injury, all because of poor user design.
The same principles of considering how something will be used and then designing accordingly can be used for anything from doors to websites. It is here that Mike’s push to apply these principles to scientific posters comes in and his video (above) is well worth investing 20 minutes of your time.
When Mike, was first asked to make a scientific poster he thought the reason most academic posters look the way they do is because they have to. However, he soon learned that there were no rules for academic poster design enshrined into academic lore and realised there was a huge opportunity to improve the way research is communicated.
So, what can we do?
The first thing is to change the way posters are designed and put together, making them quicker and easier to create, which is great for the presenter.
We can also make them better at conveying the key information, by considering what the purpose of the poster is; i.e. what is it trying to tell people?
An ideal academic poster should accomplish three goals;
- Maximise the amount of insight transferred to attendees of the poster session
- Keep the good stuff; viewers still need detail and they need to encourage conversation
- We need to achieve 1 and 2, in a way that is as easy and quick as making a poster within the current conventions, otherwise it won’t happen.
To do this, consider a completely blank page and think; “if I could only put one thing on here, what would it be?” The answer is probably, the main finding of the study, because what you found is the most interesting and most relevant thing you want to tell people.
So, you need a finding, or take-home message, to be placed prominently in the front-and-centre, where it is easy to read and cannot be missed. The next step is to take that finding, and without changing the meaning, word it in such a way that it is both easy to understand and memorable.
For example, Mike found the following finding hidden away in the ‘Discussion’ section of one poster, which he then changed into Plain English;
- “We found consistent differential validity for some non-cognitive measures for predicting international student GPA, specifically with SJT, Continuous Learning, Social Responsibility and Perseverance”
- “For international students, perseverance and a sense of social responsibility are extra important for predicting first-year GPA”
Instantly making the key piece of information easier to digest and remember.
A good way to do this is to think of billboards which are designed to transmit information to people passing by them. As such, they provide a good starting point for scientific posters, which are essentially trying to do the same thing. Only our posters are ‘selling’ the research findings/methods/techniques, rather than a product.
However, while that is the key take home message, a good academic poster needs to do more than just announce the headline, because behind every headline is the story.
For that, Mike suggests a bar on the side of the poster on which you will normally stand, called an ‘ammo box’, which features all the data (tables, graphs etc) that back up the headline and which you would refer to, in order to answer any questions that arise from people who talk to you about your poster.
On the other side of the page, Mike suggests another bar, named ‘the silent presenter’ in which you add the sections that appear on almost all scientific posters, but slimmed down and formatted in a way to be easily consumed; i.e. in bullet points. It is in this bar that you would add; the question you started with, your collaborators, an introduction, the methods, results and discussions. This space can be used to provide people an overview of the study, assuming they will be reading it silently, in three or four minutes, rather than 10.
The side bars are a key part of the proposed new template, because they allow you to include all the information which appeared on the old design but arranged in a way that is optimised according to how they are used.
With the design simplified, there is room to provide a source for the full study for people who are intrigued by your headline and would like to know more, but don’t have time to talk or read your ‘silent presenter’ bar.
In a digital age, 99% of conference attendees will have a smart phone, which can read QR codes. A QR code is easy to create and can be added to a poster so that anyone can photograph it and find the full study, or further information online, quickly, easily and without needing to interact with you at all. Using QR codes allows you to include even more information than a traditional poster allowed for, but in a format that saves time, cognitive effort and in much less space.
All of this taken together allows each person who sees your poster to take exactly the level of information away from it they want, from just the headline finding, through to digesting the full research paper.
Finally, another good tip we were given on our facebook account by Katia Hougaard is to include a stack of business cards with your poster, so that people could take your contact information with them and contact you later.
By following Mike’s advice, together we can design better scientific posters and improve the rate of scientific progress.
This is not to say that you have to use the layout Mike suggests, but we recommend trying to create a poster that teaches attendees something as they walk by, instead of relying on them to stop and talk to you, in order to learn about your work.
Interested? Check the proposals for Better Poster templates here.
Re-published from the CONNECTED Virus Network website. Thanks to Richard Wyatt for sharing.
An innovative partnership between two city universities has resulted in a brand new 90-second animated film about plant diseases that devastate African food crops. Two students from UWE Animation at UWE Bristol were commissioned by the CONNECTED Virus Network, based at The University of Bristol and Newcastle University, to make the short cartoon.
In a simple and hard-hitting way, the film depicts how the staple food crop cassava is destroyed in Sub-Saharan African countries by viruses carried by whiteflies. It draws attention to the way the 1,100-strong CONNECTED Virus Network is bringing together world-class researchers from across the globe to address these issues.
Early in 2019 Eve Bannister and Charlotte May were successful in a process which saw students pitch to the CONNECTED Network to create a film which, with the co-operation of their tutors, would form a key component of their second year of studies.
Their brief was to create a 90-second outreach animation about plant diseases’ impact, primarily aimed at non-expert laypeople, and to draw attention to the importance of the CONNECTED Network in helping address these issues. It takes the example of the cassava crop to show the impact of two damaging diseases spread by insects.
The film uses imaginative stop-motion animation techniques, injecting colour and artistic interpretation to hold the viewer’s attention and to explain the food security challenges in extremely simple terms. Rather than offering technical explanations of disease symptoms, it outlines the broad issues at stake and what CONNECTED is seeking to achieve.
It’s a simple cartoon about a very serious subject.
Very few members of the public, or indeed governments, fully realise just how seriously plant diseases affect the lives of people in Sub-Saharan African countries. The devastation they cause can actually be more harmful and damaging than more commonly-known human diseases. We hope this short film contributes towards a better understanding.
We are extremely grateful to the students, and to the UWE Animation tutor team, for this exciting collaboration. We hope it plays a part in helping Eve and Charlotte develop successful future careers that we believe their talents merit.CONNECTED Network Director, Prof. Gary Foster (University of Bristol)
Below is a subtitled of the same film. Enjoy!
On 18th May 2017, plant scientists from all over the world celebrated “International Fascination of Plants Day”. This year, plant enthusiasts could follow events around the world – thanks to social media and live-streaming. Scientists shared live broadcasts about the science they do, the facilities where they work, models from history, about engaging students with plants, and more. Botany Live, organized by the AoB Blog, was an experiment in science engagement supported by the Society for Experimental Biology, The Annals of Botany Company, and Plantae. Overall, thousands tuned in to 31 planned events registered with Botany Live.
Using Periscope and Facebook Live, some reported from dedicated events planned around Plant Day. Others talked directly to the camera and their virtual audience about plants, plant science, and communicating plant science.
The Arabidopsis Biological Resource Center (ABRC) at Ohio State University showed off the facilities and robots they use to maintain both gene stocks and seed stocks. These facilities and resources, which provide essential support for plant research, are often only known within the plant science community. Even there, how they operate on a day-to-day basis remains a mystery to many. Botany Live allowed us to take a peek at the support structures that make international plant science possible. The ABRC videos also showed how plant science is using cutting edge technology with robots to automate seed sorting and gene stocks.
A tour of the Hounsfield X-ray Facility (@UoNHounsfield) demonstrated the high-tech nature of modern plant science too. The staging the Hounsfield video was clever, as the scientists there clearly set up marks they had to hit to be on camera at certain times demonstrating the three sizes of scanner at the facility. Their live-stream ended with Malcolm Bennett in the glass house talking about the importance of exploring root traits, a big part of what they track at Hounsfield with robots and 3D X-ray tomography.
The National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) wheat transformation facility broadcast brought us cutting-edge biology directly from the field. Alison Bentley (@AlisonRBentley) guiding us around the facility, where scientists develop and field test new varieties of wheat, followed by a look around their glasshouses. Geraint Parry (@GARNetweets) then interviewed several NIAB conference attendees. A specialized facility for wheat transformation (making transgenic wheat) is, like the ABRC and Hounsfield, a resource of a special capacity to do something technical that not all individual labs can develop.
Another outdoor tour of a garden in California was given by Monica Lewandowski. She highlighted the diversity of plants grown in the state’s central valley. She also spoke about some of the challenges that plants face, and why we need plant scientists to study them. It showed the simplicity possible with Periscope broadcasts, as her session focused on just her with planned talking points, a walking path, and her voice-over.
Alun Salt of the AoB Blog brought us some short broadcasts from Kew Gardens. He gave a brief tour of the Wollemi pine, an ancient lineage known only from fossils until 1994. He also gave a quick overview of the garden’s carnivorous plants, including the coolest plant in the world, Darlingtonia californica.
Several Botany Live recordings involved school students. Alistair Culham and Dr M (@drmgoeswild) broadcast a video with students about what they’d done earlier, counting plants and observing them. Many of the students were surprised to learn where pineapples come from: not from a tree, but a bush yielding a single pineapple a year. The Gramene Database (@GrameneDatabase) broadcast a talk with students about plants’ superpowers such as resurrection plants, which can lose 95% of their water and seemingly come back to life upon rehydration. Maria Papanatsiou (@m_papanatsiou) from the University of Glasgow broadcast Plant Day activities engaging students, and many of the videos can be found on the social wall of tweets made for Botany Live.
The most popular Plant Day broadcast was from the Manchester Museum, featuring botany curators Rachel Webster (Manchester) and Donna Young (Liverpool) talking about Brendel’s Plant Models collections from Manchester and the Liverpool World Museum. They’re remarkable models of plants, made of paper mache amongst other materials, created in 1880-1920 by a father/son team in Germany. They were designed to teach plant anatomy and many are incredibly intricate, with some even being able to be taken apart to show specific parts of a flower.
Botany Live broadcasts came from all over the world, and the event can grow in the years to come. The format of live streaming is flexible, with elaborate or simple setups possible. Most broadcasts were under ten minutes, but some lasted almost an hour, and of course, they can be done nearly anytime and anywhere with a good data connection.
This first year of Botany Live was an experiment. With thousands of people reached (and likely more, as many of the videos are still available), it was a success and a boost to the Plant Day events already taking place, extending their reach online. Given the success the Manchester Museum had with their broadcast, more institutions being directly involved will help promote the live broadcasts and engage even more people in the fascinating world of plants.
GARNet newsletter also covered Botany Live in its May 2017 issue (pdf)
Celebrate Fascination of Plants Day (May 18th 2017) with an exciting new science communication project!
Botany Live is asking scientists, educators, science communicators and plant fans from around the world to live-stream their fascination with plants, sharing experiments, botanic garden explorations, tours of a lab or herbarium, Fascination of Plants Day events, interviews, discussions and more!
The aim is to spark an interest in new audiences, reaching people who might not otherwise engage with Fascination of Plants Day.
Get involved by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org for a link to a Google form where you can register your livestream session! The event will take place from the 18th-21st May.
Let’s make plants go viral!
Alert: Teachers of plant physiology!
Have you ever wanted a free, on-line textbook written by experts and regularly updated?
Plants in Action is an on-line resource for students and academics teaching plant function to undergrads, published by the Australian and New Zealand societies of plant science. Each chapter has up to 100 illustrations suitable for Powerpoint presentations. It is also ideal for graduate students and post-docs in molecular biology looking for the whole-plant context for their work. Of the original 20 chapters, ten have been fully revised.
Could you begin by describing the Plants in Action (PiA) textbook and how the idea first came about?
The original editors and contributors produced a textbook on plant function that used examples from the southern hemisphere, with view of adaptations in nature to performance in cultivation. They were motived to communicate the strong plant science in Australia and New Zealand. PiA was born as a textbook in 1999, and ten years later went open-access and free online.
Who are your target audience?
Undergraduate students, educators, practitioners and researchers, and others interested in plants and how they function. PiA gets thousands of hits per day from around the globe, including developing countries.
What topics do you cover?
To the best of my knowledge, PiA is the only comprehensive plant science textbook with a southern hemisphere perspective. It covers molecular, cellular, and whole-plant function, in ecophysiology and vegetation-environment interactions, from Antarctica to the tropics. PiA features plants that are some of the best studied genetic models and crops, as well as wild plants.
Who has contributed to the textbook, and how did you enlist potential collaborators?
PiA was written by Australian and New Zealand plant scientists from a range of institutions, many of whom have worked on both editions. Chief Editor Dr Rana Munns and the chapter editors find new contributors if the original authors are not available, although occasionally authors volunteer contributions
What changes have you made in the second edition, and how are the revisions coming along?
PiA2 is being updated to reflect recent advances in plant science, and has a new look as software enables ever more attractive layouts, with no limit for images and illustrations. PiA can be read online and is easily printed, which is important for internet-challenged regions and for students wanting to add notes. Ten chapters are fully updated with several chapters expanded.
Revisions can be made instantly (as a wiki) but take a little longer if the expert skills of our IT assistants are required. Complete revisions of chapters are slower to come on board.
Encouragingly, some excellent contributions have recently been made by junior scientists who see a strong value in developing an open-access resource to share their expertise widely.
You mentioned the text can be translated into different languages. How might users go about getting a textbook in their native language?
The project is sponsored by the Australian and New Zealand societies of plants scientists, ACIAR, and the University of Queensland. Could you elaborate on how this funding was acquired, if possible?
ACIAR (Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research) was our first sponsor. They saw the value of an open-access resource, particularly for plant biologists in developing countries and the free exchange of knowledge. The University of Queensland (UQ) came on board to provide the host server as PiA supports teaching at UQ with strengths in agriculture and environmental science. Sponsorship was also provided by the Western Sydney University, the University of Western Australia, and the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics. The societies of plant science in Australia and New Zealand are ongoing supporters and PiA remains predominantly the product of their members.
Are you looking to expand on the work in the future? How can potential contributors get involved?
It would be marvelous to have a person with time and expertise to develop further materials to add to PiA2 in collaboration with editors, authors, educational designers, and students. This could include material specifically designed for schools and interactive learning tools for students of all levels. We welcome all contributors (irrespective of their connections to the plant societies), and they can contact Rana or any chapter editor.
Without plants, Earth would not give us habitat, food and materials. But with 25% of the global flora threatened with extinction, we need more people to understand plants, and what we need to do protect them and their habitats.
The first edition of Plants in Action was published by the Australian and New Zealand societies of plant science as a hardcover book in 1999, which is also now free on-line (http://plantsinaction.science.uq.edu.au/edition1/).
All images are courtesy of the Plants in Action team, and are used with permission.
As popular British botanist (and GPC blog guest) James Wong wrote in the UK’s Guardian newspaper earlier this year: “gardening is good for you”. Ask most people how they can benefit from gardening, and they might suggest improved physical activity or stress relief, but this is only scratching the surface.
The People Plant Council (PPC) is an international group of researchers and other industrial and not-for-profit partners, which aims to understand the effects plants have on our well-being. By communicating its findings to affiliates and the public, the PPC encourages the translation of these findings into health-enhancing programs. The PPC was established after a 1990 symposium entitled, “The Role of Horticulture in Human Well-Being and Social Development”, which identified a need for scientific research into the influence of horticulture on human health and quality of life.
The benefits of plants
The earliest reports of horticulture being used to improve human health come from ancient Egypt, where members of royalty were prescribed walks through the palace gardens as a treatment for mental illness (1). Today, research from the PPC and others has identified wide-ranging psychological, physiological, and sociological benefits from plants.
The physiological benefits of gardening include an increase in physical activity (and the resulting improvements in cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength and aerobic capacity), but there are also some less obvious benefits, including better hand-eye coordination, balance, and an improvement in some chronic diseases. In one PPC-led study, elderly women took part in 50-minute gardening sessions twice a week, which led to significant improvements in their dexterity, muscle mass and cognitive ability compared to a control group (2).
There are also significant psychophysiological benefits to horticulture. Two interesting studies found that exposure to soil – or more precisely, to a common bacterium in soil (Mycobacterium vaccae) – improved the quality of life for both human cancer patients and mice by inducing the production of the brain’s “happy chemical”, seratonin (3,4). Contact with nature has also been shown to improve memory, concentration and stress.
People connect with each other around plants; whether it’s admiring a friend’s garden, giving a partner some flowers, or sharing a picnic at the local park, most of us have experienced the sociological benefits of plants. A PPC-led study found that horticulture was brilliant for improving peer relationships in schools too; a collaborative gardening program for small groups of 12–13 year-olds led to meaningful friendships that persisted after the class ended. The gardening students were also more law-abiding and social than the control group.
As well as publishing scientific research articles, the PPC team, led by Professor Candice Shoemaker (PPC Executive Chair) and Dr Sin-Ae Park (PPC Executive Co-Chair), communicates the benefits of plants and horticultural science to other researchers, funders and the wider public via a newsletter, blog posts, and through a biannual conference, the International People Plant Symposium (IPPS).
At the IPPS meetings, delegates address the inherent impacts of nature on every aspect of our lives, including physical and mental health, and education. Dr Park elaborated, “The IPPS is attended by researchers, practitioners (such as horticultural therapists), and educators in various fields such as horticultural science, ethnobotany, psychology, nursing, occupational therapy, etc. The International Society for Horticultural Science supports the PPC, and enables us to publish the IPPS proceedings in their journal, Acta Horticulturae”.
The 2016 IPPS, ‘Plants, Cultures and Healthy Communities’, will be held in November in Uruguay.
Thanks to Dr Sin-Ae Park for providing information on the activities of the People Plant Council that informed this blog post.
- Park, S-A., Lee, A-Y., Lee, G-J., et al., 2016. Horticultural activity interventions and outcomes: a review. Korean Journal of Horticultural Science and Technology, 34, pp.513-527.
- Park, S-A., Lee, A-Y., Son, K-C., Lee, W-L. and Kim, D-S., 2016. Gardening intervention for physical and psychological health benefits in elderly women at community centers. HortTechnology, 26(4), pp.474-483.
- Lowry, C.A., Hollis, J.H., de Vries, A., et al., 2007. Identification of an immune-responsive mesolimbocortical serotonergic system: Potential role in regulation of emotional behavior. Neuroscience, 146(2), pp.756-772.
- Stanford, J.L., Stanford, C.A., O’Brien, M.E.R. and Grange, J.M., 2008. Successful immunotherapy with Mycobacterium vaccae in the treatment of adenocarcinoma of the lung. European Journal of Cancer, 44(2), pp.224-227.
A new book, The Hidden Life of Trees, claims that trees talk to one another. But is this really the case? The simple answer is that plants certainly exchange information with one another and other organisms such as insects. Think of the scents of newly mowed grass or crushed sage. Some of the chemicals that make up these aromas will tell other plants to prepare for an attack or summon predatory insects to defend them. These evocative smells could be seen as cries of warning or screams for help.
When plants are damaged by infection or by being eaten, they release a range of volatile molecules into the air around them. After exposure to some of these chemicals, nearby plants of the same species and even other species become less vulnerable to attack, for example by producing toxins or substances that make themselves harder to digest. These changes don’t usually happen straight away but the genes needed turn on much more quickly when they are needed.
There is also evidence that the chemicals released by plants in a particular location are subtly different from those released elsewhere by the same species. Consequently, it seems that if plants talk, they even have languages or at least regional accents.
But is this really communication, as humans understand it? It really isn’t clear whether a plant releasing chemicals intends to pass on information to another plant by doing so. I respond to the chemicals released by frying onions but that doesn’t mean that the onions are talking to me. So are these really messages or just the opportunist use of chemical information in the environment?
It seems more likely that these signals started out not as a way to send information to other trees but to get messages quickly and efficiently to other parts of the same plant. Pests or infections will often jump from one branch of a tree to the ones closest to it. But a warning telling those branches to prepare for an imminent attack might have to travel most of the way through the tree and then back up it if the message had to move through the body of the plant. This could be a journey of tens of metres in a tall tree.
A signal that can travel through the air, meanwhile, can go directly to the branches closest to the attack. A consequence of these volatile signals, however, is that they can be “overheard” by any plants the chemicals reach. So when other trees respond by also beefing up their defences, is it communication or eavesdropping?
Perhaps it is a bit of both. Maybe an internal messaging system became co-opted to help plants close enough to “listen in” as they would often be related to the tree sending the message in a classic example of evolutionary “kin selection”. However, releasing chemicals into the environment is indiscriminate and other plants and organisms can take advantage. Sometimes these chemical “messages” can attract pests or parasites. The smell of crushed sage doesn’t protect it from humans, for example … rather the opposite.
Not all transfer of information between plants is through the air. The vast majority of plants live in symbiotic relationships with soil fungi. We tend to think of forest fungi as mushrooms and toadstools above the ground but these only pop up after sexual reproduction. The real fungus is a mat of elongated cells spreading through the forest floor.
The trees provide the fungi with sugar and the fungi help the tree to gather water and soil nutrients. And many plants can be joined underground by cells of the same individual fungus. Sometimes when one plant suffers damage, other plants connected to it through their soil fungi protect themselves against future attacks while other plants equally near that aren’t “plugged in” don’t. This fungal network is another carrier for information, a true Wood Wide Web.
But who is in control? The messages are relayed by the fungus and perhaps it is the one really using the information, gathering it from one of its host plants and passing it on to the others to protect its “revenue”. The fungus helps the plants to communicate but may do it for its own purposes, and that might include preferentially helping its best producers, whether they are related to the tree sending the message or not. Information intended for family and friends may end up being passed on to unrelated third parties to profit the carrier of the message. In this way, fungi is a bit like a social media company, listening into and benefiting from its users’ posts.
So we return to the question of whether any of these examples are communication in the sense that we would mean it. Anything that makes people think more about plants is good, but perhaps making trees seem more like us can lead us to overlook their essential nature. As a slightly hippy student, what attracted me to plant science was the way that trees and other plants fluidly adjust to their environment. Perhaps using the chemicals that reach them to shape their adaptation is just another facet of this. Worrying about whether trees communicate actually says more about us than them.