Posts Tagged ‘Society for Plant Neurobiology’

Plants: Dumb or Brainy?

Tuesday, July 1st, 2008

It’s time to ditch, once and for all, the notion that plants are the dumb blondes of the biosphere. The typical suburban or city dweller sees plants as domestic accessories, with all the awareness of an Eames molded plywood chair. Even plant lovers tend to see them as horticultural eye candy, flaunting their pretty flower heads solely for our pleasure.

Set aside for a moment the fact that plants are capable of converting sunlight into food, or that some canny orchids can produce blooms that look so much like female bees that they’re magnets for the lovesick males who unintentionally pollinate the plants while attempting to copulate with their flowers. To me, this has always been evidence that plants are really smart.

Now scientists have demonstrated that some species can recognize members of their own family. In the British journal Biology Letters, plant ecologist Susan A. Dudley and colleague Amanda File set off a bit of a ruckus in the rarefied world of plant biology by describing an experiment in which they planted the Great Lakes sea rocket, Cakile edentula var. lacustris, in pots. Turns out there was a lot less competition when siblings shared the same container than when groups of strangers grew in a common pot — a feat of altruism members of our own species are not always capable of pulling off.

In fact, there’s so much new data on plant intelligence, including abilities like sensing and, yes, even learning and remembering, that scientists are now arguing about whether plants can be said to have nervous systems, if not brains. A scientific group called the Society for Plant Neurobiology was recently established to provide a venue for biologists interested in exploring, in their words, “complex plant behavior.” This prompted a backlash by three dozen exasperated scientists who published an article, “Plant Neurobioloogy: No Brain, No Gain?”, that took members of the new society to task for discussing the possibility that plants have neurons, synapses, and some vegetable equivalent of a brain, long considered the province of animals exclusively. Eric D. Brenner of The New York Botanical Garden, along with four other scientists, countered, “No one proposes that we literally look for a walnut-shaped little brain in the root or shoot tip.” But, they insisted, we should be open to the possibility that plants have their own sort of nervous system.

To keep abreast of the latest on plants as intelligent life forms, see the Society for Plant Neurobiology’s peer-reviewed journal, Plant Signaling & Behavior.