Plants warn of pests by emitting chemical signals - La Provincia

Plants can communicate with each other when they are attacked by pests, with messages in the form of chemicals in the air known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Andre Kessler, professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University, and his team observed Solidago altissima, also known as Canada's goldenrod, and monitored the impact of a specific herbivore: the goldenrod leaf beetle .

The big find is what Kessler calls "open channel communication." When plants are suffering an attack, their smells, transmitted by VOCs, become more similar.

"Then, they converge in the same language, or the same warning signs, to share information freely," Kessler said. "The exchange of information becomes independent of how closely the plant is related to its neighbor."

The investigation found that neighboring plants detect warning VOCs and prepare for the perceived threat, like an incoming insect pest.

"What we see very often when plants are attacked by pathogens or herbivores is that change your metabolism"said Kessler." But it is not a random change; in fact, those chemical and metabolic changes are also helping them cope with those attackers. It's very similar to our immune system: although plants don't have antibodies like us, they can defend themselves with a lot of nasty chemistry. "

That chemistry includes defensive compounds. For example, some of the VOCs they can attract predatory insects, or parasitoids, that kill the herbivore and save the plant. Such findings could have practical applications worldwide.

"For a long time, people have thought about using plant-to-plant interactions in organic farming to protect crop plants, especially when they have interspersed crop systems," Kessler said. "We are involved in working on a system in Kenya, called 'push-pull' and developed by the International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology, which is based on manipulating the flow of information to control a pest in corn fields ".

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