How plants make decisions: a new study

Scientists used to know that plants can learn and make decisions. Now, thanks to a new study conducted by experts from the University of Tübingen (Germany), we better understand how the plants are making decisions when they are under pressure, “competing” with others for limited access to sunlight.

It is known that in a competitive environment, plants can either try to “outgrow” their “rivals”, or go into “survival mode” (in low light). Some plants may even try to “move away” (grow in the other direction) from the nearest “competitors”. These three variants of the reaction to competition are described in detail in the scientific literature, the researchers note.

Now experts have tried to find out whether plants can choose this or that reaction, correlating it with the characteristics of the nearest “neighbors”. The results of the new work are briefly reported by the ScienceAlert portal.

The scientists placed the Potentilla reptans in various experimental conditions (imitating scenarios that occur in nature). Using special filters, the authors monitored the amount of incoming light, as well as the length of light waves (this is what allows plants to feel that incoming light is filtered by the leaves of neighboring plants).

When the researchers forced the “finger” to think that it was surrounded by a small thick plant, it tried to “outgrow” it vertically. When she “believed” that there were high “competitors” around her, she switched to a “survival regime” (the blood pressure reduced the rate of photosynthesis and “made” the leaves thinner and wider to catch as much light as possible). When the plant was surrounded by a high, but sparsely growing “competitor”, it tried to “move away,” to grow in a different direction.

Thus, the results of the work allow us to better understand how plants make decisions: they really take into account the characteristics of “competitors”, trying to maximally use resources in the struggle for access to sunlight.

But can this also apply to other resources, not just light? Probably, this issue will be the subject of the next study.