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Plants ‘know’ who the baddies are



March 31, 2015

GardenDrum Adam Woodhams aphids on sow thistle

New research at the University of Missouri has found that plants’ know’ what’s attacking them and vary their defences accordingly.

Although to the gardener the damage caused by chewing or sucking pests is obvious, what we can’t see is how the plant mobilises its defences based on the way its being attacked. By identifying plant defence genes and how they respond to pests like caterpillars or aphids, plant breeders could more easily target the plant’s most common predatory pest.

What was surprising to the researchers wasn’t so much that plants could tell the difference between a chewing insect and a sap-sucker, but that they could differentiate between each type of caterpillar or aphid.

The scientists identified 28,000 different genes in the Arabidopsis plants used in the study and found 2,778 genes that responded, with distinct combinations for each of the two caterpillar and two aphid species. By differentiating the attacker, a plant only has to mobilise the required defences when they are needed, saving energy.

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