Plants Can Tell Who's Who

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It's not just animals that can tell siblings from strangers.

Telling apart relatives from strangers is crucial in many animal species, helping them to share precious resources or avoid inbreeding. Now it seems that plants can perform the same trick.

Now, Susan Dudley and Amanda File of McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, have shown that plants grown alongside unrelated neighbours are more competitive than those growing with their siblings — ploughing more energy into growing roots when their neighbours don't share their genetic stock.

Plants 'know' more about their environment than they are often given credit for: they can sense the presence of neighbouring plants through changes in water or nutrients available to them or through chemical cues in the soil, and can adjust their own growth accordingly. "That plants have a secret social life is something well known to plant ecologists," says Dudley.

How the plants work out who's who is still a mystery. Dudley suggests that a protein or chemical signal specific to each plant's family might be secreted and detected by other roots in the nearby area.


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