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"Family Roots" -- The Discovery Files

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Plants may not have eyes and ears, but they can recognize their siblings, and researchers at the University of Delaware have discovered how. Plants recognize family members by detecting chemical cues secreted by their roots. The finding not only sheds light on the intriguing chemical sensing system in plants, but also may have implications for agriculture and even home gardening.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Plant Parenthood. Sapling Rivalry?

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files -- new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

Human siblings don't always get along. But in the plant world, it may be a different story. Researchers at the University of Delaware have honed in on a way that plants can not only recognize family members close by, but support them in their battle for survival. In short, how plants recognize their family, and have each others' backs.

The team has determined that the root cause lies in the roots, more specifically in root secretions. They placed young seedlings in a liquid media, some with secretions from the brothers and sisters -- some with their own and some with secretions from strangers.

Like watching grass grow, 3000 plants were carefully monitored for seven days. When siblings were grown next to each other, they 'played nice' and didn't send out roots to compete with one another. But when thrown in with strangers, it was "game on" -- the plants rapidly grew more roots to compete for water and nutrients. In fact, they put so much energy into growing roots, that they were often shorter.

The researchers also noted that sibling plants often allow leaves to touch and intertwine, whereas strangers avoid other strangers.

The study has implications from agriculture to home gardening. And this is just the beginning. When it comes to plant families, they're 'rooting' for each other.

"The Discovery Files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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