Smarter than we Think?

(February 1st, 2016) Just a silly idea or a new chapter in plant biology? With recently acquired funding, two biologists want to condition plants, just like Ivan Pavlov did with his dogs. Will they succeed?

The line between plants and animals used to be quite a definite one. Namely, plants have the ability to photosynthesise and produce their own food while animals need to hunt for their next meal. Especially with simple organisms like anemones or algae, this line has become somewhat blurred over the past few years, but one aspect that has firmly stayed in the animal field is the ability to learn new tricks. After all, animals have brains and plants don’t.

Now, even this barrier is being questioned. Biologists Michal Gruntman and Katja Tielbörger from Tübingen University in Germany, have just been awarded funding from the Volkswagen Foundation to investigate if plants can learn specific behaviours in response to environmental cues. “There is evidence for quite 'smart' behaviour of plants in the literature and we wanted to know just how smart plants really are”, says Tielbörger.

The project “Pavlovian plants” aims to repeat exactly what Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov famously did with dogs, but this time using plants. To test their theory, the researchers will use several types of plant, including two that can make quick movements in response to danger or food: Mimosa pudica, which can quickly fold its leaves if touched, and the Venus Fly Trap (Dionaea muscipula), which can close its trap if an absent-minded insect dares to land on its leaves. The objective is to “teach” the plants to set off these quick leaf movements in response to cues that have nothing to do with food or danger. Just like Pavlov’s dog that started drooling in response to a ringing bell.

At the moment this is only an idea - when it comes to potential results the team doesn’t quite know what to expect. “We don't expect anything - this is the whole idea of the funding agency - they give money for ideas that can be entirely stupid, and whose main aspect is that it is about 'thinking outside the box'”, explains Tielbörger.

Nevertheless, optimism reigns at this stage and if the results are promising, the researchers would like to pursue it further. “This is in fact also the idea of the VW-Foundation: if successful, there may be an opportunity for a follow-up”, says Tielbörger. Both biologists are convinced that if plants demonstrate an ability to learn, these results will revolutionise our understanding of plants as insensitive organisms oblivious to their surroundings.

Alex Reis

Photo: Moir

Last Changes: 05.02.2016