Ever wondered how plants tell time?

With daylight savings soon approaching, our body ‘clocks’ will soon adjust to the change in environment. Just like humans, plants also have the innate ability to tell the time and coordinate their cellular rhythms to suit different environmental conditions throughout the day. According to new research, this understanding could support scientists to breed new plant varieties with the ability to better adapt to climate change. 

We are all fitted with a biological clock, which can either be very useful (knowing when it is dinner time) or incredibly annoying (lying awake at 4am due to jetlag).

Every cell in the human body has its own molecular clock, generating the daily rise and fall in the number of proteins produced at different times. Our brains act as our ‘master clock’, keeping the rest of the body in sync using light and other sensory, environmental signals.

Plants can also sense the time of day. Consequently, they prepare themselves for photosynthesis prior to dawn, utilise heat protection methods at the hottest times of day and moderate nectar production during peak pollination times.

Just like humans, every cell in a plant has its own ‘clock’, but plants lack the equivalent of a central brain to keep all these different clocks working in sync.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge’s Sainsbury Laboratory examined activities across all parts of various plants to develop an understanding of how they make these types of time-dependant decisions without a central brain-like organ.

The results suggest individual plant cells have the ability to coordinate with their neighbours through a method known as self-organisation. Essentially, each plant cell communicates its own decision-making with adjacent cells, meaning they all end up working together in unison.

This means cells in different parts of the plant can make independent and beneficial decisions based on their own local needs. For example, the shoot can bend in the direction of light, while the roots can grow towards water or nutrient-rich soil.

This ability could explain how plants are able to adapt so effectively to manage environmental changes — a phenomenon that scientists refer to as ‘plasticity’. Having this improved understanding of the way plants make decisions, both to protect themselves and maximise the benefits of their environment at any given time of day, has the potential to help scientists breed new varieties with the ability to adapt to climate change.

Source: Plos Biology Journal