|Sweet potato. photo by Anja Meents, Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology|
If a hungry predator threatens you, you can run away. You can also yell at your friends to warn them to run away too.
First the researchers wanted to know what happened in a particular variety of sweet potato after it was attacked by leaf-munching bugs. That's because the variety was more resistant to insect attacks than other varieties. The resistant sweet potato plants produced a plant hormone in the damaged leaves - and emitted odors.
Cool thing #1: Leaves that weren't attacked by the insects also produced the same hormone - a protein that made the attacking insects lose their appetite (it affected the insects' digestive system).
Cool thing #2: Plants growing nearby that hadn't been attacked by the insects also produced the anti-herbivore protein.
Turns out, the neighboring plants could detect the odor emitted by the insect-nibbled plants, allowing them to prepare their defense against invading leaf-munchers. Pretty nifty trick for plants, right? Makes you wonder what else we can learn by studying plants.
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