Shooting for the Earth, Plant Noses, and Badly Behaving Flora
Updated: Dec 2, 2020
“What drives life is a little current kept up by sunshine.”
- Albert Szent-Györgi, Winner of the 1937 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
“I never saw a discontented tree. They grip the ground as though they liked it, and though fast rooted they travel about as far as we do. They go wandering forth in all directions with every wind, going and coming like ourselves, traveling with us around the sun two million miles a day, and through space heaven knows how fast and far!”
- John Muir, Writer and Naturalist
1. The Earthshot Prize
The Earthshot Prize launched last week and is being called the “Nobel Prize for environmentalism”. Championed by Sir David Attenborough and funded by Prince William’s foundation, the prize aims to incentivize planet-repair innovation and create over 50 solutions to the world’s most important environmental issues over the next 10 years. The total prize money awarded will top $60 million and anyone is eligible.
“Anyone is eligible to receive the Earthshot Prize, whether it be individuals, community groups, economists, leaders, governments, banks, cities, or even countries. Nominations for the prize open November 1, 2020, with an annual awards ceremony held in a different city each year. The first will take place in London in the fall of 2021.”
I'm jazzed to see that those with the means are incentivizing those with the dreams. The Earthshot Prize could be as life-altering as Kennedy's Moonshot program was, the very program of which this new effort is based. And the prize council is stacked (shout out to Shakira Shakira).
2. A Forest Found.
A recent storm in Llanrhystud, Wales has revealed an ancient woodland. After Storm Francis pulled huge amounts of sand out to sea in August of this year, a beach full of petrified tree stumps emerged. The species recorded include pine, oak, alder, and birch trees. The estimated age of this forest is between 4,500-6000 years old.
Researchers think that the stumps are part of the petrified forest that can sometimes be seen in Borth, a town 13 miles north of Llanrhystud. I use the word sometimes here because the stumps only emerge for a short while. Within two to three months after a major storm, the ancient forest becomes hidden once again beneath the sand.
3. What a Plant Smells
But where are their noses??
First, How do humans smell?
Humans smell by inhaling air that contains odor molecules, which stimulate membrane receptors inside the nose that send signals along the olfactory nerve to the olfactory bulb. From there the scents travel to the parts of your brain that help interpret the information into smells that are either familiar or foreign. This information obtained through scent creates a human reaction. With this information, we can define the word smell to mean the process of perceiving odors or scents through stimuli.
So, how does a plant smell?
Plants also have membrane receptors that pick up volatile chemicals from the air. Human membrane receptors are in our noses. Where are the membrane receptors in a plant? Just as with their light receptors, a plant’s “scent” receptors are dispersed throughout their entire being. In Brilliant Green, Stefano Mancuso and Alessandra Viola write that the each of billions of cells that make up a plant often have volatile substance receptors and those receptors each fit with a specific smell. “Picture these receptors as so many different locks arranged on the surface of the cells, and the smells are so many keys; each lock opens when it comes in contact with the right key, and this sets off the mechanism that produces the olfactory information.”
What does a plant need scent for?
In What A Plant Knows, Daniel Chamovitz explains that plants emit their own odors and also sense these odors and the odors of neighboring plants. “Plants know when their fruit is ripe, when their neighbor has been cut by a gardener’s shears, or when their neighbor is being eaten by a ravenous bug; they smell it.” In other words, Plants use their sense of smell to communicate, with themselves, with each other, and with the greater natural world.
Plants use biogenic volatile organic compounds (BVOCs), Mancuso and Viola explain, for intra and inter-organism chatting. “All smells produced by plants - for example, those of rosemary, basil, or licorice - are equivalent to precise messages: they are plants’ “words”, their lexicon!”Certain smells are specific messages. Humans have only decoded a tiny portion of these plant exchanges, and it’s clear there isn’t one universal plant language. “It’s as if there are different languages with a common root: some meaning remains in all of them, while others are specific to different languages (and therefor different species).” But we do know a little of the translation.
Plants smelling themselves
When a fruit starts to ripen, it produces and disperses a molecule called ethylene. This BVOC promotes ripening in other fruits on the same plant, as well as neighboring plants. Evolutionarily, this makes sense because the color of a fruit changes as it ripens in order to attract pollinators and seed dispersers. The more color, the more potential offspring. Ethylene detection in plants also initiates leaf and petal senescence, when the leaves or petals age and fall off the tree or plant. An American autumn is senescence in full view.
Plants smelling each other
Depending on the species, the release of and detection of certain stress-induced BVOCs can initiate incredible responses, like when pest-infested trees send warnings to their healthy neighbors. Methyl jasmonate is a molecule that plants produce when they’re stressed. Like an SOS written in the sand for an overhead plane to read, this chemical is sent out into the air when a plant has been put in danger, either from biological or nonbiological threats. In essence, the plant (intentionally or not) warns its brethren of potential attackers. Chamovitz calls this “(L)eavesdropping”. The neighboring plants that smell these odors can then act in various (and awesome) ways - maybe by pumping poisonous chemicals to all of the yet-to-be-eaten leaves or calling for help from the insect world. Yep - plants entice beetles for backup.
A study done on lima bean plants (Phaseolus lunatus) in 2007 proved that plants talk to animals. This interaction is sparked by a plant’s dispersed ability to smell. When a lima bean plant is being munched on by a beetle, it’s flowers will change the chemical make-up of their nectar to attract beetle-eating insects.
We, as humans, also sense these airborne volatile compounds from plants. The smell of lavender makes us sleepy, the smell of lemon makes us pucker. Like plants, and with plants, we communicate via these pheromones. Humans communicate in other various ways - a touch, a kiss, a shout, a glare. Plants as well. Smell is only the beginning...
4. Plants Behaving Badly
David Attenborough narrates a fabulous documentary series highlighting the botanical “bad boys”of the plant world. The series, titled Plants Behaving Badly, delves into the sinister strategies of plants around the world, including the murderous tendencies of carnivorous plants and the mischievous sexual reproduction tactics of orchids. The only problem with this fascinating series is that there are only two episodes.
Here’s a clip from the first episode titled Murder & Mayhem:
5. Monterey Bay Kelp Forests
I was in Monterey, California last weekend and while their world-famous aquarium is still closed for the safety of the public, their Kelp Forest Cam is a very relaxing way to experience the magical underwater world of these sea plants.
And whoa - kelp is cool.
“This majestic giant grows incredibly fast — anywhere from three to five inches (7–13 cm) each day in our exhibit, and 10 to 12 inches (25–30.5 cm) in the bay. Under ideal conditions, giant kelp can grow two feet each day, creating towering underwater forests that serve as vibrant marine habitats.”