Plants Do Math To Control Food Supply, Say 'Astonished' Researchers [STUDY]

By iScienceTimes Staff on June 24, 2013 11:27 AM EDT

Arabidopsis
Plants are able to "do math" to control overnight food supplies, a new study says. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Plants are able to "do math" to regulate their food reserves, "amazed" British scientists found in a new study.

In order to feed themselves, plants use energy from the sun to convert carbon dioxide into sugars and starch. In this new study, performed at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, England, scientists found that plants are able to "do math" to adjust their starch consumption levels after dark, to make sure the starch lasts until dawn.

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"This is the first concrete example in a fundamental biological process of such a sophisticated arithmetic calculation," said Professor Martin Howard from the John Innes Centre.

The study found that the plants are able to make on-the-fly calculations when circumstances change. If the plant has low starch levels one day, for instance, the plant is still able to calculate how to make the low amount of starch last through the night.

In the study, the scientists looked at Arabidopsis, which is considered a model plant for research. The scientists found that at night, the leaves of the plant are able to measure the amount starch in store, and estimate how long it is until dawn. The plant is able to divide its starch store by the amount of time until dawn. By dawn, the study found, the plant has used up about 95 percent of its starch.

If the plants use up their starch too quickly, they won't grow during the night. If the plant is too slow in processing its starch, the starch gets wasted.

"They're actually doing maths in a simple, chemical way--that's amazing, it astonished us as scientists to see that," study leader Prof Alison Smith told BBC News.

The scientists think that such a finding indicates that animals might do this sort of math too. For instance, they believe a similar mechanism to the one the plants use may allow birds to control their fat reserves during food-deprived migrations.

One biologist, Richard Buggs of Queen Mary, University of London, who was not involved in the study, was quick to point out that plants doing math isn't evidence of "plant intelligence."  

"It simply suggests that plants have a mechanism designed to automatically regulate how fast they burn carbohydrates at night," Buggs said. "Plants don't do maths voluntarily and with a purpose in mind like we do."

The study will be published in the journal eLife.

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