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Recent research by scientists from the University of Cambridge suggests that, similarly as in humans, ‘every cell in the plant appears to have its own clock’. Unlike humans however, plants don’t have a brain to keep their clocks synchronised. For plants to therefore coordinate their cellular rhythms, they undergo a process coined ‘local self-organisation’. This essentially involves the plant cells communicating their timing with neighbouring cells. This is thought to parallel the way in which schools of fish and flocks of birds coordinate their movements by interacting with their neighbours.

It is suggested that ‘local decision-making by cells, combined with signalling between them, might be how plants make decisions without a brain’. This process allows cells in different parts of a plant to make decisions about how to grow. Specifically, cells in the shoot and root of a plant can separately coordinate and optimise growth to their local conditions. For example, the shoot can bend towards light such as sunlight and the roots can grow towards nutrient-rich soil or water. This recent discovery may hence help to explain plants’ ability to continuously adapt their growth and development over time and how they are able to effectively cope with changes in their surrounding environment, a process termed ‘plasticity’. By better understanding how plants go about making decisions, scientists may pave the way for further research, such as breeding new plant varieties which are able to respond to their increasingly changeable environment, particularly in the face of climate change.

Students interested in applying for Biology, as well as those applying for Natural Sciences (Biological Sciences pathway), can consider how novel research such as this not only sheds light on the behaviour of plants but also allows for a plethora of scientific developments by researchers within the field.

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