The mechanisms of communication between plants have been unveiled by a team of researchers led by Professor Masatsugu Toyota from the University of Saitama in Japan. The study’s results have been published in Nature Communications. Plants emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the atmosphere in response to mechanical damage or insect attacks.

Unharmed plants nearby perceive the released VOCs as signals of danger, activating defensive responses against future threats. This phenomenon of airborne communication between plants through VOCs was first documented in 1983 and has been observed in over 30 different plant species. However, the molecular mechanisms underlying the perception of VOCs and the induction of defenses remain unclear.

The team has real-time visualized plant communication through VOCs and revealed how VOCs are absorbed by plants, triggering calcium (Ca2+)-dependent defensive responses against future threats. “We built a device to pump VOCs emitted by plants that had been fed on by caterpillars to undamaged plants nearby, and combined it with a real-time open-field fluorescent imaging system,” says Toyota. This innovative setup allowed them to observe flashes of fluorescence spreading within an Arabidopsis thaliana mustard plant after exposure to VOCs emitted by plants damaged by insects. Plants create fluorescent protein sensors for intracellular calcium; therefore, changes in intracellular calcium concentration can be monitored by observing changes in fluorescence.

“Besides insect attacks, VOCs released from manually damaged leaves also induced Ca2+ signals in nearby undamaged plants,” says Toyota. To identify the type of VOCs that induced Ca2+ signals in plants, Toyota’s team investigated various VOCs known to induce defensive responses in plants. They discovered that two VOCs, (Z)-3-hexenal (Z-3-HAL) and (E)-2-hexenal (E-2-HAL), both six-carbon aldehydes, induced Ca2+ signals in Arabidopsis. Z-3-HAL and E-2-HAL are volatile chemicals with herbaceous odors known as green leaf volatiles (GLVs) emitted by mechanically damaged or herbivore-attacked plants.

One thought on “Plants communicate with each other: Here’s how”

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