Do plants perform best with family or strangers? Researchers consider social interactions

November 09, 2011

In the fight for survival, plants are capable of complex social behaviours and may exhibit altruism towards family members, but aggressively compete with strangers.

A growing body of work suggests plants recognize and respond to the presence and identity of their neighbours. But can plants cooperate with their relatives? While some studies have shown that siblings perform best -- suggesting altruism towards relatives -- other studies have shown that when less related plants grow together the group can actually outperform siblings. This implies the group benefits from its diversity by dividing precious resources effectively and competing less.

A team from McMaster University suggests plants can benefit from both altruism and biodiversity but when these processes occur at the same time, it is difficult to predict the outcome.

"The greatest challenge for understanding plant social interactions is we can't interpret plant behaviours as easily as we do those of animals," explains Susan Dudley, an associate professor in the Department of Biology at McMaster. "Though we have shown plants change traits in the presence of relatives, we need to determine if this is cooperation. Linking the plant behaviours with their benefits is challenging when multiple processes co-occur."

Dudley and a team of researchers disentangle the sometimes contradictory research in the latest edition of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, describing how the identity and presence of neighbours affect many processes acting on plant populations.

The problem, she says, is that plant social interactions are treated as a black box, with researchers only looking at the output, or the fitness of the plant, in sibling competition. But they need to investigate the mechanisms inside the box -- by describing how traits of individuals affect fitness -- to understand how the output is reached and which mechanisms are occurring to get there.

"Simply put, social environment matters to plants. If we first acknowledge that kin cooperation and resource partitioning are co-occurring, we can begin to address some very important questions," says Amanda File, a graduate student in the Department of Biology at McMaster.

"Among these questions is whether there is a link between kin recognition and plant performance, whether plant kin recognition can improve crop yield and how kin recognition shapes communities and ecosystems" says Guillermo Murphy, a graduate student in the Department of Biology at McMaster.
-end-
Attention editors: a high res photo of plantain seedlings used in an experiment can be downloaded at: http://dailynews.mcmaster.ca/images/plants1.jpg

A high res photo of iris flowers showing a population of interacting plants can be downloaded at: http://dailynews.mcmaster.ca/images/plants3.jpg

A copy of the published paper can be viewed at: http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2011/11/03/rspb.2011.1995

McMaster University, one of four Canadian universities listed among the Top 100 universities in the world, is renowned for its innovation in both learning and discovery. It has a student population of 23,000, and more than 140,000 alumni in 128 countries.

For more information, please contact:

Susan Dudley
Associate Professor, Department of Biology
McMaster University
sdudley@mcmaster.ca

Amanda File
Graduate Student, Department of Biology
McMaster University
fileamanda@gmail.com

Guillermo Murphy
Graduate Student, Department of Biology
McMaster University
murphygp@mcmaster.ca

Michelle Donovan
Public Relations Manager
McMaster University
905-525-9140, ext. 22869
donovam@mcmaster.ca

McMaster University

Related Altruism Articles from Brightsurf:

Altruistic babies? Study shows infants are willing to give up food, help others
New research by the University of Washington's Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences finds that altruism may begin in infancy.

Beyond romance
Love can make us do crazy things. It often prompts us to behave in counterintuitive ways, like, for example, placing the wellbeing of our loved ones above our own.

Morals versus money: How we make social decisions
Our actions are guided by moral values. However, monetary incentives can get in the way of our good intentions.

Finding an elusive mutation that turns altruism into selfish behavior among honeybees
For the first time, a group led by Denise Aumer and Eckart Stolle, at the Martin-Luther-Universit├Ąt Halle-Wittenberg's Institute of Biology, have finally found the root cause responsible for thelytoky syndrome--which dramatically turns bees from altruistic helpers to selfish mercenaries.

Altruism can be trained
Mental training can effectively cultivate care, compassion and even altruistically motivated behaviour psychologists from W├╝rzburg and Leipzig have shown in a recent study.

Participants in dementia prevention research motivated by altruism
Researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine, with collaborators across the country, report that people who participate in dementia prevention trials are primarily motivated by altruism and pleased to help.

The warm glow of kindness is real -- Sussex study confirms
The 'warm glow' of kindness is real -- even when there's nothing in it for you.

Sensitive babies become altruistic toddlers
Our responsiveness to seeing others in distress accounts for variability in helping behavior from early in development, according to a study published Sept.

For the first time, a neural link between altruism and empathy toward strangers
Using fMRI scans of a brain region called the anterior insula, University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown University researchers discovered that people who donated a kidney to an anonymous recipient were more sensitive to a stranger's fear and pain.

Birds help each other partly for selfish reasons
Up to now, researchers have believed that birds stay at home and altruistically help raise younger siblings because this is the only way to pass on genes when you cannot breed yourself.

Read More: Altruism News and Altruism Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.