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Are plants altruistic?


Family sticks together ... even in the plant world (courtesy: Carol Beny)
Family sticks together ... even in the plant world (courtesy: Carol Beny)

Cheryl Santa Maria, staff writer

February 2, 2013 — A new study by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder suggests that plants may have the ability to look out for one another.

The study focused on corn, due to its interesting reproduction cycle
The study focused on corn, due to its interesting reproduction cycle

Corn.

It's delicious, nutritious ... and considerate?

Not exactly, but a new study suggests that some plants may have the ability to look out for one another.

The study, which was published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences focused on the behaviour of corn.

The plant has a unique reproduction cycle, in which males flower, distributing a pair of pollen grains to tiny cobs below.

When the pollen comes into contact with silk strands found on the cob, a seed containing an embryo and endosperm is produced, resulting in one corn kernel.

As the seed grows, the endosperm nourishes the embryo.

The study may provide insight into how grains are produced
The study may provide insight into how grains are produced

When comparing the growth and behaviour of embryos and endosperm in seeds that shared both parents with those that only shared a mother, researchers found a striking difference. 

"The results indicated embryos with the same mother and father as the endosperm in their seed weighed significantly more than embryos with the same mother but a different father," said Pamela Diggle, a faculty member in CU-Boulder’s ecology and evolutionary biology department, in a statement.

"We found that endosperm that does not share the same father as the embryo does not hand over as much food -- it appears to be acting less cooperatively."

Past studies have revealed that plants are able to provide more nutrients to hardier offspring when resources are scarce, but Diggle says this is the first study to test the idea of cooperation among siblings in plants.

The findings may provide new insight into crop production.

According to researchers, endosperm provides approximately 70 percent of the world's calories in the form of corn, wheat, and rice, among other crops.


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