by Justin Joffe
The benefits of talking to houseplants have long been relegated to the halls of pseudoscience, while the benefits of playing them music has seemed even goofier. Now, a study published in The Annals of Botany journal suggests that plants are much more complex in their range of reactions and much closer to animals than previously assumed.
The study used a single-lens reflex camera to follow organ movements in plants before, during, and after recovery to exposure to diverse and unrelated anesthetics. “Mimosa leaves, pea tendrils, Venus flytraps and sundew traps all lost both their autonomous and touch-induced movements after exposure to anesthetics,” it said. “In Venus flytrap, this was shown to be due to the loss of action potentials under diethyl ether anesthesia. The same concentration of diethyl ether immobilized pea tendrils. Anaesthetics also impeded seed germination and chlorophyll accumulation in cress seedlings.”
By trapping pea plants in ether-filled glass chambers, soaking garden cress roots and seedlings in lidocaine, and measuring the electrical activity of Venus flytrap cells, they soon determined the plants become unresponsive. This meant the anesthetics worked, and the plants’ cells stopped firing. Once the medicine wore off, they seemed to regain consciousness.
While these insights can help doctors learn more about the effectiveness of those same anesthetics, they also offer further proof that plants are complex living organisms, receptive to pain and able to be subdued using medicine.
“Plants are not just robotic, stimulus-response devices,” said study co-author Frantisek Baluska, a plant cell biologist at the University of Bonn in Germany. “They’re living organisms which have their own problems, maybe something like with humans feeling pain or joy. In order to navigate this complex life, they must have some compass.”
A few years ago, scientists discovered a plant that could tell when caterpillars were munching on its leaves. Though it suggested plants were more aware than we knew, this new study offers further proof.
In related news, China recently announced plans to grow plants and animals on the moon. By sending potatoes, Arabidopsis seeds and silkworm eggs in a capsule to the surface of the moon, the eggs will hatch into carbon dioxide-producing silkworms, while the potatoes and seeds will release oxygen through photosynthesis.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, MIT is growing plants that glow in the dark. They managed this by introducing chemically interacting nanoparticles, like the enzyme that gives fireflies their bioluminescence, into the leaves of a watercress plant.