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How to connect brain and plant research: Looking ahead for new journeys

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Topic: Science  |  Series: (Medicinal) Plants
Root and Leaf Brain original watercolor painting, things in life do not require precise planning. Some things click naturally without any obvious efforts. Last couple of years have found me on a roller coaster called PhD research while thinking about my life-long passion: the medicinal plants. I was wondering why the Universe guided me to and on the journey of brain imaging (Which totally got me in the meantime, by the way.) Where is the link to the plants and healing, I was thinking every so often. Until a few months ago when I theoretically stepped into an exciting field: plant neurobiology! Click!

Plant neurobiology [1] is, using scientific terminology, pretty cool! Plant neurobiology is also pretty controversial. [2] It not only connects the brain and the plants, it also spices it up with a proper portion of philosophy. What is going on here?

Well, we tend to think about plants as if they were objects. But they are not. They are not only living (something most of us will agree on) but also sensing beings. The latter implies that the plants are able to sense the surrounding world and to react to it. The perception of light by plants is generally accepted: the principle of photosynthesis has been around for a while. Research has also shown that the plants can smell as they communicate through emitted chemical entities known as "volatile organic compounds". [3] They plant-to-plant communication can also be guided via roots and their hyphal networks. [4] The plants even emit acoustic waves and some researchers have already suggested that those can contribute to the plant-to-plant communication. [5] The signalling does not occur only between plants, but also in a single plant body itself. Plant hormones and signalling molecules that orchestrate a galore of plant functions have been described a while ago. [6]

Now, how is all this communication controlled? The plants don’t seem to have a brain, do they? Well, turns out, that is exactly the question! There is an area called a transition zone located roughly 1 mm from the apex of a root tip. It is this part of plants which the plant neurobiologists believe to be a plant’s command centre. So we might be actually looking at the hind part of the plants while admiring roses petals or the tree crowns, as the "head" of the plants - the control centre - is buried in the ground! Interestingly, this has been proposed by nobody less than Charles Darwin more than 125 years ago!  [7]

Such a hypothesis of course generates a never-ending list of interesting questions. And there is only one way how to answer them: through experimental research. Lucky me my PhD journey is on the last stretch leaving me at a broad cross road.

1. Alpi, A., et al., Plant neurobiology: no brain, no gain? Trends in Plant Science, 2007. 12(4): p. 135-136.2.

2. Brenner, E.D., et al., Response to Alpi et al.: plant neurobiology: the gain is more than the name. Trends Plant Sci, 2007. 12(7): p. 285-6.3.

3. Ueda, H., Y. Kikuta, and K. Matsuda, Plant communication: mediated by individual or blended VOCs? Plant Signal Behav, 2012. 7(2): p. 222-6.4.

4.Johnson, D. and L. Gilbert, Interplant signalling through hyphal networks. New Phytol, 2015. 205(4): p. 1448-53.5.

5. Gagliano, M., S. Mancuso, and D. Robert, Towards understanding plant bioacoustics. Trends Plant Sci, 2012. 17(6): p. 323-5.6.


7. Baluska, F., et al., The 'root-brain' hypothesis of Charles and Francis Darwin: Revival after more than 125 years. Plant Signal Behav, 2009. 4(12): p. 1121-7.

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