Voracious, Attacking Caterpillars Cause Plant Leaves to Shine

First Posted: Jun 05, 2015 07:38 AM EDT

When voracious herbivores attack plants, the vegetation has few ways to defend itself. However, it does react. Scientists have discovered that when a plant is attacked, a number of physiological responses are triggered.

In this latest study, the researchers decided to visualize the immediate wound or herbivory responses in plants. They focused on the plant, thale cress, otherwise known as Arabidopsis thaliana.

Thale cress produces a special protein that breaks down after the binding of calcium ions and emits free energy in the form of light. The amount of light corresponds to the calcium concentrations in the cells of the respective leaf areas. By using a highly sensitive camera system, the researchers could track the calcium flow in the plants.

Visualization revealed that calcium signals occur systematically and wander from attacked to neighboring leaves within a short period of time. Ultimately, these signals put the entire plant into a state of defense readiness.

Calcium is a universal intracellular messenger. In plants, many physiological processes are mediated by calcium ions, especially responses to abiotic and biotic stresses, such as feeding caterpillars. These trigger the activation of a number of defense mechanisms.

If a plant is attacked by a feeding caterpillar, a wound signal emanates from the affected leaf and transmits to other, unattacked leaves.

"It is very impressive to see how every bite of a caterpillar makes certain leaf areas shine," said Victoria Kiep, one of the researchers, in a news release.

The findings reveal how plants react to being attacked. More specifically, it visualizes what happens by examining the calcium signals and revealing them in the form of light. Currently, the researchers hope to find out what kind of wounding triggers the systematic calcium signal in future studies.

The findings are published in the journal New Phytologist.

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