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Plants 'Recognize' Their Siblings 331

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the family-tree dept.
An anonymous reader writes to tell us that according to a recent study, Biologists have found that plants are able to recognize their own relatives. "Researchers at McMaster University have found that plants get fiercely competitive when forced to share their pot with strangers of the same species, but they're accommodating when potted with their siblings. [...] Though they lack cognition and memory, the study shows plants are capable of complex social behaviours such as altruism towards relatives, says Dudley. Like humans, the most interesting behaviours occur beneath the surface."
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Plants 'Recognize' Their Siblings

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  • Or... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ArcherB (796902) * on Wednesday June 13, 2007 @03:38PM (#19495973) Journal
    Maybe they can't recognize siblings at all. Maybe the genetics are close enough so that the plant can not distinguish its own root from that of its siblings.

    Just a thought.
    • by mulvane (692631)
      I was of the same mind on this as you. I would liken it more to a disease immunity where your body creates anti-bodies to fight off things that don't belong.
    • Re:Or... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Jarjarthejedi (996957) <christianpinch@gma i l . com> on Wednesday June 13, 2007 @03:49PM (#19496187) Journal
      Exactly. Why are we so quick to jump to conclusions about plants and animals being the same as humans now a days anyways? So a plant doesn't respond as vigorously when another plant with a similar genome is in the pot with it...how exactly is that altruism? Last I checked altruism was sacrificing something for the benefit of another. These plants aren't giving anything up in this case...it's more like plants are extremely protective/territorial to plants different from themselves and less so with plants like them. The absence of selfishness != altruism...

      I mean, first posted comment is a perfectly plausible alternate theory, why isn't that even considered in the article? Could it be, gasp, that saying that plants recognize and display altruism towards siblings gets more reads than that plants have displayed abnormal behavior towards those with similar genomes? This seems an awful lot like hyperbole to get more reads, or, to not attribute to malice what could be simple ignorance, perhaps it's simply that they thought people wouldn't understand it without something in normal life to compare it too...
      • Re:Or... (Score:5, Funny)

        by Ucklak (755284) on Wednesday June 13, 2007 @03:58PM (#19496331)
        Don't even mention that plants can feel pain. What are the vegans going to eat?
        • Re:Or... (Score:4, Funny)

          by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 13, 2007 @04:09PM (#19496521)
          Hopefully nothing....More for me.

        • Re:Or... (Score:5, Funny)

          by veganboyjosh (896761) on Wednesday June 13, 2007 @04:11PM (#19496561)
          nothing that casts a shadow...
        • Re:Or... (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Rei (128717) on Wednesday June 13, 2007 @04:41PM (#19497083) Homepage
          Yeah, cue the vegetarian/vegan bashing with "argumentum ad absurdum".

          I could much more easily go in the other direction.

          Would you eat pigs, slaughtered industrially for meat?
          Would you eat dogs/cats, slaughtered industrially for meat?
          Would you eat dolphins, slaughtered industrially for meat?
          Would you eat lemurs, slaughtered industrially for meat?
          Would you eat organutangs, slaughtered industrially for meat?
          Would you eat chimpanzees, slaughtered industrially for meat?
          Would you eat genetically 50/50 human/chimpanzee crosses, slaughtered industrially for meat?
          Would you eat 90/10 human/chimpanzee crosses, slaughtered industrially for meat?
          Would you eat 100% humans, slaughtered industrially for meat?

          Where's your ethical cutoff point? Why? I'd wager that it's a lot more arbitrary than my "the less functional neurons, the better" cutoff. Of course plants interact with their surroundings. Even unicellular organisms are remarkably complex systems with all kinds of feedback. But they're relatively easy to model. How many neurons do you think it would take, in an artificial neural net, to modify an arbitrary plant or single-celled organism behavior -- say, which direction to grow roots? Three, four perhaps? Now how many do you think it would take to model a mouse's decision on where and how to build its den based on its' life experiences (flooding, predators, warmth, etc)? Hundreds of thousands, millions perhaps? There's really no comparison.

          To put some cutoff in the nervous systems of higher animals, however, you have to come up with some new "depth of thought and/or emotion" cutoff. Do so, and defend it with references to the scientific literature. I challenge you to do so. Even a lab mouse has metacognition and problem solving abilities. They don't have *your level* of problem solving abilities, and they don't have our language hardware (and it is due to built-in wiring; read up about the "Critical Period" where, if you don't learn language before then, you lose the ability to do so). But it's still pretty much the same thing.
          • I fail to see this cutoff point you are alluding to. (Though I must admit your menu does look tasty)
            • by Rei (128717)
              Yeah, I figured that there would be some people who wouldn't be bothered by not only the concept of cannibalism, but the concept of industrial slaughter of humans to support that cannibalism.

              Please stay far, far away from me. ;)
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by fitten (521191)

            Where's your ethical cutoff point? Why? I'd wager that it's a lot more arbitrary than my "the less functional neurons, the better" cutoff.

            I don't feel the need to justify ethically, to myself or anyone else, my choices of food. I simply eat what I feel like eating and don't eat what I don't want to eat. I see no reason to get 'ethics' involved in the decision really... unless you count things like: I'll try not to steal food from someone else, unless my own survival depends upon it.

            That being said, I supp

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            Where's your ethical cutoff point? Why?

            I eat what's appealing, same as every other animal. Do I need another reason?

            Frankly, I'm very comfortable with my place in the food chain. Nature is... natural.

            • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

              by Jeremi (14640)
              I eat what's appealing, same as every other animal. Do I need another reason?


              Hannibal? Is that you?

            • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

              by Thomas Miconi (85282)
              Frankly, I'm very comfortable with my place in the food chain.

              Great Cthulhu approves of your enthusiasm.

        • ignoratio elenchi (Score:2, Interesting)

          by Anonymous Coward
          Don't even mention that plants can feel pain. What are the vegans going to eat?

          I have read the articles written making this claim, and examined the evidence presented. It is not even remotely compelling.

          The whole of the argument was this:

          1) Things that respond to injury feel pain.
          2) Plants respond to injury.
          3) Therefore plants feel pain.

          Premise 1 has been experimentally disproven. There are many tissues in the body which humans do not feel and that heal when injured. There are cases of humans born with m
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Ucklak (755284)
            They [plants] also have a rectangular cellular makeup and I'm sure their nervous system is nothing like us animals. They respond to stimuli like a mouse thinks "oh sh*t" when an owl or snake gulps him down. What's really cool about plants is that they make their own food. Stuff that decays near their roots is just dessert. It's a shame that humans aren't as efficient.

            If you have an alligator that tears a leg off a zebra, that zebra will still try to hobble away in order to survive.
            Likewise, you can tear
        • by turgid (580780)

          What are the vegans going to eat?

          Earthlings?

      • Re:Or... (Score:5, Insightful)

        by plunge (27239) on Wednesday June 13, 2007 @04:03PM (#19496425)
        I dunno, the usage seems mostly legitimate to me. The plants ARE toning down their normal aggressive behaviors, the ones that allow them to compete for scarce resources with other plants. No one is saying that the plants have feelings for their kin, but it makes perfect sense that they'd show some form of kin selection. It makes no real sense to just call it a "mistake" or a "confusion" because plants don't have intentions.

        Most human altruism appears to be from the same source: it began as something we extended to kin groups, and extended to others only as civilization developed further. I don't see what the value of calling it "abnormal" or a "mistake." It's a behavior that seems to help the species and does what it does regardless of how it came about.
        • by SQLGuru (980662)
          So, by extending that logic, it means that in a few hundred generations, plants will have a functioning society.....

          Swamp Thing lives!

          Oblig: I for one welcome our altruistic towards family, malevolent towards others veggie overlords!

          Layne
      • by Otter (3800)
        These plants aren't giving anything up in this case...

        Of course they are! As the article explains, and anyone who has ever grown a garden knows, they're conceding water, nutrients and sunlight to the plant they're sharing with.

        Could it be, gasp, that saying that plants recognize and display altruism towards siblings gets more reads than that plants have displayed abnormal behavior towards those with similar genomes?

        If that "abnormal behavior" involves sacrificing one's own god for the good of others, th

      • Actually, humans are the same as plants and animals. They defend their own family, group, nation, and so on.
      • Exactly. Why are we so quick to jump to conclusions about plants and animals being the same as humans now a days anyways?

        Well, since humans ARE animals...

        It seems to me that the poster remarking that they might not be able to tell the difference between their own roots and the roots of a close relative is a plausible theory, but I have no problem with using terms like "altruistic" to explain this. All we as human animals ever do is just react to stimuli as well, just in a much more complicated fashion.

    • man, i read that as "planets recognize their own siblings". smh. that would have been awesome.
    • by uncoveror (570620)
      No. They do recognize their siblings, and they feel pain! Read all about it. [uncoveror.com] Ripping a carrot out of the ground and taking a bite may cause as much pain as shooting a deer.
    • by grumpyman (849537)
      Maybe they can't recognize siblings at all. Maybe the genetics are close enough so that the plant can not distinguish its own root from that of its siblings.


      This is sort of saying, they can recognize non-siblings/own roots because the genetics are so different.

  • Sharing (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 13, 2007 @03:38PM (#19495977)
    I too become fiercely competitive when forced to share my pot with strangers
  • by snowgirl (978879) on Wednesday June 13, 2007 @03:40PM (#19496009) Journal
    See? I was right! Plants have feelings, too! Eating plants is MURDER!

    I'm a nilegan for life! I won't harm another thing in this world, just to advance myself!
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by ale_ryu (1102077)
      I guess cheese is the only edible thing without feelings then...
      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by mulvane (692631)
        Cheese is made from milk.. Think of all the starving calves out there!!!!
      • by Jaqenn (996058)

        I guess cheese is the only edible thing without feelings then...

        From wikipedia:

        Cheese is made by curdling milk using a combination of rennet (or rennet substitutes) and acidification. Bacteria culture acidify the milk and play a role in defining the texture and flavor of most cheeses. Some cheeses also feature molds, either on the outer rind or throughout.

        If you're going to call for plant rights, you shouldn't leave out the molds and bacteria. I guess they might not actually be alive when you eat the cheese, but they were certainly exploited.

        • 'rennet' is actually the lining of a calves stomach. I doubt calves are happy about cheese making.
          • If you read the Alternative Coagulants [wikipedia.org] section in the Rennet article, you'll see there are quite a few options open to vegetarians. If you are a vegetarian, just check the label. If it doesn't mention how the rennet was harvested, you should assume it came from a calf stomach. However, there are many options available [rice.edu] that are vegetarian. Just Google "vegetarian cheese" for several useful sites.
          • by Rei (128717)
            Most rennet these days comes from genetically engineered microbes. Traditional european cheesemaking does involve animal rennet, though.

            There are many non-GE, non-animal "rennets", but they're not as general purpose as the former two.

            I'm speaking as a vegetarian who used to have a cheesemaking hobby, and who still has some microbial rennet in the fridge. :)
        • by SQLGuru (980662)
          Just because they are used in the process, doesn't mean they are consumed by the process.....

          For example, fermentation of alcohol -- that's just a by-product of the little buggers eating the sugars not of them dying.

          Layne
    • by mulvane (692631)
      That's gonna make for a short lived stance.
    • I'm a nilegan for life! I won't harm another thing in this world, just to advance myself!

      Don't breath then might hurt microorganisms in the air. ;)

      • by snowgirl (978879)
        OMG YOU'RE RIGHT! HUUUUUUUUP-

        *sits there patiently, then turns blue, then faints and collapses to the ground*
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by asninn (1071320)
      The correct term is breatharian [wikipedia.org], actually (or oxygenarian if you're into KoL).
    • I'm a level 5 vegan - I won't eat anything that casts a shadow.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by bckrispi (725257)

        I'm a level 5 vegan - I won't eat anything that casts a shadow.
        Ha! I'm a level 7 mage. I cast "remove shadow" on the cow, and "doogie's irresistable hunger" on truthsearch. Save vs. spell or eat the yummy bovine!!!
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by UnknownSoldier (67820)
      I know you're being funny, but you first have to learn to crawl before running. Similarly, you don't advance from Kindergarten to post PhD knowledge in one day.

      Anyways, the steps for advancing your spirituality is:

      1) carnivorism
      a) cutting out fat / fatty foods
      b) cutting out sugar and other refined foods
      2) vegetarian
      3) vegan
      4) fruitarian / nutarian
      5) waterian
      6) lightarian

      There have been a few people throughout history who didn't eat anything, but you'll have to do your own research since you have to find yo
    • I'm not a vegetarian because I love animals.

      I'm not a vegetarian because I love hate vegetables.

  • by RobertB-DC (622190) * on Wednesday June 13, 2007 @03:42PM (#19496057) Homepage Journal
    They *hate* it when you do that!
  • The article quotes Susan Dudley, associate professor of biology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, as saying plants lack cognition and memory. Has this been definitively demonstrated? I seem to remember experiments 20, 30 years ago that suggested this might be untrue.
    • Most of the experiments about talking to plants, plants having cognition, etc. were done by people who had been sharing their pot with strangers....


      This peyote cactus, man, it's talkin' to me.

    • by man_ls (248470) on Wednesday June 13, 2007 @04:49PM (#19497215)
      Since most (all?) plants lack anything resembling a nervous system, and it's widely recognized that higher-order memory and cognitive functions can only occur in the presence of an organized nervous system, it stands to reason that plants aren't capable of memory and cognition.

      This isn't to say that plants can't "remember" things, for instance, plant immune response to pathogens, injury, etc. They can habituate to hormones, chemicals, and so forth. It simply means that the "memory" and "learning" being done is low-order physiological homeostasis maintenance and not an insightful act. Intracellular messaging systems account for a lot of "emergent" behavior from these organisms, but it's a far jump from that up to something that can actively plan its actions before it does them.
  • by saforrest (184929) on Wednesday June 13, 2007 @03:44PM (#19496097) Homepage Journal
    This is certainly consistent with the selfish-gene explanation for selfless behaviour: there is an evolutionary advantage, from the perspective of the genes, to co-operating with your siblings because your siblings also bear some of your genes.

    This is the same reason hy such "nepotism" exists elsewhere in biology; there's no reason why one would expect plants to be any different, though I imagine the problem of recognizing your siblings is somewhat harder.
    • As someone with an adopted Niece, I can tell you that the nepotism for relatives on the human level is quite invariant to whether or not a relative shares the same genetics as you.

      I've never agreed with that whole spread your genes by helping family members (I've read half of the Selfish Gene until I realized it just didn't make much sense to me). Humans are one of the few (if not only) species whose ultimate goal is NOT to maximize their progeny (and henceforth spread their genes). Compare that to our ne
  • by pragma_x (644215) on Wednesday June 13, 2007 @03:50PM (#19496197) Journal
    The paper is short, but gets to the point:

    We found that kin groups allocated less to their fine root mass than did stranger groups when they competed below ground, indicating that these plants could discriminate relatives. Root allocation did not differ between kin and stranger groups grown in isolated pots, indicating that the cues for kin recognition lie in root interactions. Siblings were less competitive than strangers, which is consistent with kin selection.
    I'm not a botanist, but that sounds like a rather profound change in growth behavior just because a nearby root system "looks familiar". Then again, on a biochemical level, maybe that's all there is to it.

    http://www.pubs.royalsoc.ac.uk/media/biology_lette rs/RSBL20070232.pdf [royalsoc.ac.uk]
  • by njfuzzy (734116)
    "the study shows plants are capable of complex social behaviours such as altruism towards relatives"


    Complex? I'm pretty sure that could be defined as the most simple social behavor possible.

  • PETA? (Score:3, Funny)

    by PygmySurfer (442860) on Wednesday June 13, 2007 @03:51PM (#19496225)
    So, does this mean PETA will fuck off and die now?
  • Great, now we'll have the extreme left nut jobs chaining themselves to plants and committing vegetable rights terrorism in their war to save plants from the evils of corporations, America and that most loathsome enemy of all, worthy of destruction for the good of plants and animals alike, humanity!!!
  • antisocial (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Though they lack cognition and memory, the study shows plants are capable of complex social behaviours such as altruism towards relatives, says Dudley.

    Nonsense, the study showed that plants grow aggressively when they encounter foreign root systems. It is probably to the plant's advantage to increase its root growth rate in an environment when it might be crowded out by other plants. Identifying a mechanism which allows plants to respond to their environment is interesting but it is in no way a "social beha
  • Uh huh (Score:4, Funny)

    by ip_freely_2000 (577249) on Wednesday June 13, 2007 @04:02PM (#19496411)
    "Researchers at McMaster University have found that plants get fiercely competitive when forced to share their pot with strangers of the same species, but they're accommodating when potted with their siblings"

    Ya right. I suggest they stop smoking the plants they are studying.
  • by Prototerm (762512) on Wednesday June 13, 2007 @04:11PM (#19496555)
    "I trusted him like a brother. That is, not at all"

    --From somewhere in the original Amber Series
  • by digitalderbs (718388) on Wednesday June 13, 2007 @04:33PM (#19496953)
    Disclaimer : I'm not a plant biologist. I'm a physical biochemist.

    The process of biochemically detecting neighboring organisms is not new. Bacteria use quorum sensing [wikipedia.org] biochemical pathways to "communicate" various things about environment such as population density -- molecules are exchanged and recognized in the extracellular environment.

    What is interesting here is that presummably there are different signals for siblings and non-siblings. A more interesting result, in my opinion, would be to find the biochemical connection to this selective quorum sensing. The answer could be complicated : it could include libraries of biochemicals (in varying concentrations) and differences in bacterial flora between plants.
  • Drought Tolerance (Score:3, Interesting)

    by mdsolar (1045926) on Wednesday June 13, 2007 @04:46PM (#19497159) Homepage Journal
    More deeply rooted plants are more resistant to drought. I wonder if it would make sense to do a sacrificial second sowing with a different batch of seeds to encourage root development as a hedge against drought?
    --
    Rent solar power with no maintenance fee: http://mdsolar.blogspot.com/2007/01/slashdot-users -selling-solar.html [blogspot.com]
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      Perhaps something a little less wasteful would be mixing whatever chemical/compound is signaling this behavior into the soil.
  • br - c > 0

    It works, bitches.
  • Isnt sentient.. Its all about light and heat and food/water use..

  • ...get fiercely competitive when forced to share their pot with strangers of the same species, but they're accommodating when potted with their siblings. [...]

    So they don't mind sharing their pot with siblings, but get hostile when they have to share thier pot with strangers of the same species?

    I know how they feel.

    Wait..what are we talking about? Plants? OH..That kind of pot...I thought you meant....nevermind.
  • plants get fiercely competitive when forced to share their pot with strangers of the same species, but they're accommodating when potted with their siblings. [...] Though they lack cognition and memory, the study shows plants are capable of complex social behaviours


    The family that par-tays together, is paranoid of the neighbors together.
  • by cin62 (1050660)
    When pollen from another plant arrives to stigma, some plants can find out whether the pollen grain is their own or belongs to another genetically distinct plant (of the same species). The pollen grain carries a certain protein on its coat, the type of which is determined by the parent ("father") of the pollen grain. Now, if the protein on the pollen is the same as the one the "mother" plant produces (it means that they are close relatives), it does not allow the pollen grain to fertilize the egg.
    Basicall
  • TFA sez : "Though they lack cognition and memory,"

    Yet they go on to use many terms in the article that refer to behaviors (including that word itself) that imply intention, something plants are not capable of. Sort of turns the quoted sentence fragment into a contradicted disclaimer.

    There are perfectly good terms from ecological and genetic biology that can be used. There's no need to try to dress it up with inapplicable psychological terms. It doesn't clarify anything, and it looks goofy.
  • by Pfhorrest (545131) on Wednesday June 13, 2007 @06:37PM (#19498597) Homepage Journal
    This is a perfect example of the difference between psychological altruism (what we normally think of as "altruism", as describes a sort behavior) and evolutionary altruism (which is a precise technical term in biology which describes a property of heritable traits, not behavior).

    Psychological altruism is performing behavior which requires for motivation only the benefit (however broadly you are to construe benefit) of a person other than the one performing the action. So, if I'm inclined to do something nice for you, even if I don't get anything out of it, then I am an altruistic person, and such nice things are altruistic behavior.

    Evolutionary altruism is having heritable traits which increase the reproductive fitness of others without increasing the reproductive fitness of the individual who has that trait. Sterility is evolutionarily altruistic (in social animals at least), and yet clearly not psychologically altruistic (you don't choose what genes you're born with).

    These plants are evolutionarily altruistic. They are not psychologically altruistic, because they have no psychological traits at all.

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