Surprising behavior from Plants
September 8, 2017 6:13 PM   Subscribe

Plants seem to have memory. And it seems more animal-like than I would have guessed. "In her first experiments with plant learning, Gagliano decided to test her new subjects the same way she would animals. She started with habituation, the simplest form of learning. If the plants encountered the same innocuous stimulus over and over again, would their response to it change?" Spoiler: It did
posted by aleph (18 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
OK, I'm not gonna lie, I was thinking this was pretty oversold, but then I got to the peas and the fan. That's extremely interesting.
posted by PMdixon at 6:54 PM on September 8, 2017 [5 favorites]

Vegetable rights and peace.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 6:57 PM on September 8, 2017 [7 favorites]

Telltale game: your houseplant will remember this.
posted by brook horse at 7:10 PM on September 8, 2017 [8 favorites]

I'm only halfway through this but I gotta say, for a popular-press science article this is very well written.

And I've always thought that plants are a lot more active than we give them credit for. They do a lot of the same things animals do—just in very different ways, and more slowly.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:13 PM on September 8, 2017 [5 favorites]

This is fascinating work, but the overuse of the anthropomorphizing metaphors and the phrase "plant memory" is just, ugh.

Although if "The Secret Life of Plants Part 2" gets us another Stevie Wonder album, I'll take it.
posted by phooky at 7:13 PM on September 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Phooky, did you read through to the end? The article gets surprisingly deep on that point for about the last quarter.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:22 PM on September 8, 2017 [4 favorites]

Very impressed by Ms Laskow's breakdown of what Lysenko had right versus what he had wrong, and how his reasoning and the general lack of knowledge of how genes work lead him down that path.

It's pretty common knowledge that Lysenko was wrong—he seems to pop up in every biology book— but you don't often see an explanation of just how being a tiny bit right, with regards to vernalization at least, lead him astray.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 7:29 PM on September 8, 2017 [3 favorites]

But yes, basically you have to accept on one level that "memory" is a behavioral phenomenon rather than a specific process, while on another level all memory (including human memory) is a result of mechanistic biochemical processes of one sort or another, and that maybe it doesn't matter so much if those processes involve neurons or epigenetics. Here's (most of) the article's final paragraph, which I think neatly encapsulates why I've always thought that the demonization of anthropomorphization in the sciences is a bit reactionary and overly dogmatic:
Even though they’re alive, we tend to think of plants as objects rather than dynamic, breathing, growing beings. We see them as mechanistic things that react to simple stimuli. But to some extent, that’s true of every type of life on Earth. Everything that lives is a bundle of chemicals and electrical signals in dialogue with the environment in which it exists. A memory, such as of the heat of summer on last year’s beach vacation, is a biochemical marker registered from a set of external inputs. A plant’s epigenetic memory, of the cold of winter months, on a fundamental level, is not so different.
I think that we risk crediting our own species with a certain amount of undeserved exceptionalism, when we reflexively dismiss concepts like "plant memory" as anthropomorphic and therefore invalid. The opposite side of the coin is a sort of humanistic chauvanism, and I think that contemporary biology as a field leans a little too far in that direction. This article is a nice antidote.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:34 PM on September 8, 2017 [40 favorites]

Yes, los pantalones del muerte! That impressed me too. I've read the Lysenko story many times in different places, but I think Laskow's accounting of it is actually the best I've read, certainly the best given its brevity. The insight that Lysenko was genuinely onto something at the very beginning (but that it all went wrong because of his lack of ethics and the sick political system he lived in) is one that I hadn't quite grasped before.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:46 PM on September 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

Related post.
posted by homunculus at 7:50 PM on September 8, 2017

"Time is different for a tree than for a man. Sun and soil and water, these are the things a weirwood understands, not days and years and centuries. For men, time is a river. We are trapped in its flow, hurtling from past to present, always in the same direction. The lives of trees are different. They root and grow and die in one place, and that river does not move them. The oak is the acorn, the acorn is the oak. And the weirwood ... a thousand human years are a moment to a weirwood, and through such gates you and I may gaze into the past."
(ASOIAF/GOT spoilers at linked page.)
posted by homunculus at 7:51 PM on September 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

Someone who thinks days and years don't mean anything to trees doesn't know much about them. One word for you dude; dendrochronology.
posted by Segundus at 3:41 AM on September 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

"Not only did the pea need to learn something, but he learned something that meant nothing, that was totally irrelevant."

So graduate school for peas, got it!
posted by jeremias at 5:02 AM on September 9, 2017 [12 favorites]

This kind of reminds me of an old saw of cactus and succulent growers:

"Just because your plant can survive a drought doesn't mean it should have to".
posted by srboisvert at 9:38 AM on September 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Slime molds can learn, and then teach what they learn (paper, press release, radio interview), so I'm not surprised that trees learn, too.
posted by clawsoon at 10:05 AM on September 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

Slime molds weird me out, clawsoon. I mean, what kingdom are they even in? I mean I guess they're protists with optional colonialism? But Protista is just a garbage can kingdom for eukaryotic taxa that are not readily classifiable, it's not even close to monophyletic. Slime molds themselves are a paraphyletic grouping, for that matter. What the hell are they?
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 10:12 PM on September 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh, look: Monica Gagliano. We did an interview with her a while ago on our podcast Talk the Talk.

Maybe you would like it.
posted by fontor at 12:18 AM on September 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The: I mean, what kingdom are they even in?

You got me curious. It turns out that the specific slime mould in that study, Physarum polycephalum, is part of a group of slime moulds without cells, which is a sister group to the fascinating social amoeba/slime mould group Dictyostelia. So that's two kinds of sociability in sister groups: In Myxogastria, the nuclei get rid of internal cell walls altogether and live in one big blob. In Dicty, the cells live by themselves sometimes and get together to become a worm-like thing sometimes. And both are part of the larger Amoebozoa group that's probably a sister group to animals and fungi, whose cells are social in a third and fourth way.

That makes me wonder if there's a common set of proteins shared between all these groups that make sociability likely. Maybe some communication molecules, or adhesion molecules? Or maybe something about how they divide or move around?
posted by clawsoon at 4:50 AM on September 10, 2017

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