Plants can learn from their experience

Jul 14, 2016 | written by:

Plants are useful and beautiful, they fill of color and life our cities and provide the fruits and the oxygen we constantly need. However, we tend to see them as passive elements of the scenery: they don't move, don't have a nervous system, nor a brain... how 'active' can they be? It may sound absurd, but plants and humans look alike more than we can imagine. Several studies conducted in recent years have shown that plants have a number of amazing features and that, in some respects, some of their behaviors are similar to ours.

Plants are able to communicate, can learn from experience and 'take' decisions continuously adapting to the environment. After all, our green friends date back half a billion years and nothing stupid survives that long. A recent study published in the journal Current Biology, reveals that plants (despite being brainless) take risks and assess the surrounding environment by exploiting the situation to take benefit or to reduce, at least, the disadvantages.

The researchers ran a series of experiments to see how pea plants (Pisum sativum) respond to risk. First, they grew the plants in a greenhouse with their roots split between two different soils, one with an higher levels of nutrients and the other one poorer. As expected, the plants grew more roots in the first one, showing a good adaptive response. In the next phase, plants again had roots in two soils, although with a tougher choice: both lands had the same average nutrient level, but one was constant and the other variable. The average level also different from plant to plant. After 12 weeks, scientists measured the root mass in each soil and noticed how plants had responded differently to the conditions in which they found: many had 'gambled' on variable soil, while others had shown an aversion to risk, focusing on soil with a constant nutrient level. Both of these are good decisions.

The plants had little to gain in the first situation, since the constant ground offered plenty of nutrients and variable soil, despite its high average, was prone to streaks of dangerously low nutrients. On the other hand, when average nutrient levels were too low for a plant thrive, the variable soil at least offered the chance to gamble on a streak of good luck. Here's human analogy: if someone offers you a guaranteed $800, or a coin flip that yields $1,000 for heads and nothing for tails, most people realize the first option has a higher average payout. But if you're stranded without money and need $900 to get home, flipping the coin for a chance at $1,000 could be more logical.

The research, revealing that plants 'take' decisions to survive, obviously doesn't want to imply that plants are intelligent in the same sense used for humans and other animals, but it does force us to look at vegetation in a different light.

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