How Plants Communicate

Aug 14, 2014

Credit Jim Westwood

Your garden may be a peaceful spot, but there’s a lot of chatter going on in those plant beds, even though it’s out of humans’ earshot.  Scientists know that plants actually communicate.  Now, at Virginia Tech, they’re finding out more about how they do it. 


It’s not actual sound, but a chemical process that is the medium of communication… in this case for parasitic plants and their hosts. In a paper published in the journal, Science, Professor of Plant Pathology, Physiology & Weed Science, Jim Westwood found that their vehicle of communication lies in their RNA, which they exchange like so many chemical text messages.

“Plants are interacting on a level that we've not really thought about before and that you can have transfer of these messenger RNA molecules that you don't think of as being used for communication in nature.”

It’s known that RNA is the node of communication within a cell, but it wasn’t known that these molecules in a parasitic plant can travel, exchanging information with the host plant.  Think of it like a hacker.  The parasite’s RNA starts stealing information from the host. It also sends its own information to the host causing it to make more food or lower it’s defenses.  Westwood says the parasite and its host plant actually bond in this way with RNA molecules as their conduit.

"So imagine your house and your neighbor build their house with their wall right up next to it, with their wall right against your wall. And then they knock out a window or door in between the two houses. That’s the kind of exchange that happens, a kind of fusion."

It's like a neighbor who comes by and eats all your food. He keeps on raiding the refrigerator, he can’t let you starve because a parasite has to keep its host alive in order to keep up the racket.

And even though in plants, there is no sound when they communicate, if you had a parasitic neighbor like that, you might want to play your music really loud.