Lens of Time: When Plants Fight Back

Under cover of subtlety and slow-motion, plants not only perceive the organisms around them, they respond—and in some cases, prepare for battle.

Sure, trees sway in the breeze; buds open; flowers bloom. But to most casual observers, plants are little more than static fixtures on the landscape. That notion, though—of plants as the epitome of passive life—has as much to do with our inability to perceive slow, subtle changes as it does with the realities of being a plant. Using time-lapse techniques to effectively speed up interactions between organisms, scientists have begun to unlock the secret lives of plants. Researchers at ETH Zurich, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, for example, have discovered that plants are far more perceptive than anyone knew. It turns out some can “smell” other plants nearby, and can use this information to either grow toward or away from their neighbors. Now the scientists are pairing time-lapse techniques and detailed chemical analyses to explore how plants respond to the predators that feed on them, as well as what signals the plants use to vary their responses to different attackers. These are classic evolutionary arms races playing out in real-time, just very, very slowly. By accelerating time, researchers are discovering just how well-equipped some plants are to do battle and win these kill-or-be-consumed struggles.

Spine Films

Spine Films is a San Francisco Bay Area production company specializing in international science, nature, environment, and arts media. They search for stories that provide opportunities to find the magical in the mundane, and that celebrate the beautiful intricacy of our Universe. You can find their films and stories on PBS, Discovery Networks, National Geographic and on websites and broadcast stations around the world.

bioGraphic is powered by the California Academy of Sciences, a renowned scientific and educational institution dedicated to regenerating the natural world through science, learning, and collaboration.