Is it bol­locks

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Could The Hap­pen­ing ac­tu­ally hap­pen?

q In M. Night Shya­malan’s 2008 twister, the world’s plants club to­gether to emit neu­ro­tox­ins in or­der to make hu­mans sui­ci­dal in a veg­e­ta­tion eco protest. Pos­si­ble?

a Sir David Charles Baulcombe, FRS FmedS ci, Royal So­ci­ety Re­search Pro­fes­sor and Regius Pro­fes­sor of Botany, Depart­ment of Plant Sciences, Univer­sity of Cam­bridge

Plants do com­mu­ni­cate – they pro­duce volatile com­pounds that trans­mit dan­ger sig­nals from one plant to its neigh­bour; “I am be­ing eaten by an in­sect – make your­self un­palat­able in case he moves across to you!” They also pro­duce dif­fusible com­pounds that af­fect ad­ja­cent plants. Some plants, for ex­am­ple, pro­duce com­pounds that in­hibit weeds. They are also so­cial – they are com­pet­i­tive and try to shade each other out, just like peo­ple. Some plants are cos­mopoli­tan

– they pre­fer to breed only with dif­fer­ent pop­u­la­tions. Oth­ers are more xeno­pho­bic and they pre­fer to breed with their own kind.

Can plants adapt to re­lease tox­ins to tar­get spe­cific threats? Yes. In one ex­am­ple they pro­duce cyanide-like com­pounds. In the nor­mal sit­u­a­tion the pre­cur­sors of the cy­nanide com­pounds are kept apart. Fol­low­ing at­tack by an in­sect, how­ever, the com­part­ment bound­aries break down and the cyanide is pro­duced. Many have ir­ri­tants/tox­ins in hairs on the surface of the leaves that are re­leased by gen­tle con­tact with hu­mans (poi­son ivy etc.). And, of course, they pro­duce starch

– the big­gest killer. Michael Pol­lan [ au­thor of The Botany Of De­sire] has pointed out that corn has the up­per hand in the sym­bio­sis of maize and men. But no, they can’t make us com­mit sui­cide.

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