Intelligent plants? Researcher unravels mysteries of plant life

Apr 17, 2014

Jack Schultz, director of the Bond Life Sciences Center at MU, leads a discussion on the “Thoughts of Plants.”
Credit Marissanne Lewis-Thompson / KBIA

When we think of plants, intelligence is usually not the first thing that comes to mind. But maybe plants are more than a decorative feature to our dining room table.

On a recent Tuesday night, the sounds of restaurant chatter, music and the aroma of food fill Columbia’s Broadway Brewery. But in the middle of the crowd, on a wooden stool sits an ordinary green plant.

Director of the Bond Life Sciences Center at MU Jack Schultz led the evening’s discussion on the “Thoughts of Plants.”                                                                                                           

“At an event like this, you at least have the opportunity to bring people close up with science and have a nice conversation about it,” Schultz said. “And the people who are not scientists are after all the people who pay for what scientists do and I think it’s only reasonable that they you know get an inside story, get an inside view of what we do.”

Schultz’s talk was part of a monthly Science Café Columbia event. Schultz, a plant scientist, began the evening by introducing his “friend”—the plant.

Schultz said that just like humans, plants have the ability to move, but at a much slower pace. There are a number of biochemical mechanisms plants enact that the average person does not see. They even have smell and taste detectors.                                                                       

“They have to be really really sensitive to everything that happens to them, everything that goes by,” Schultz said. “As a result, they’re built to detect way more things than you and I can. For example, plants have the same kinds of smell and taste detectors that you and I in our nose and mouth. But you and I only have about a dozen of those and plants have over 600 of them.”

MU chemistry professor Jason Cooley said even he learned something about the similarities between how the bodies of both plants and humans communicate.                                         

“I was actually fairly intrigued to understand that plants produce a large portion of the chemicals that our own body uses to communicate with itself,” Cooley said.

But Cooley wasn’t the only person fascinated by plant intelligence.

MU PhD student Erin Miller said while the concept of animal intelligence has been covered extensively, scientists still have a lot to learn about plant intelligence.         

“I think this idea of intelligence of plants [is] a new way to think about intelligence and it educates individuals on how their own intelligence works, and how we might apply that to other species, and how that might benefit the world as a whole,” Miller said.

Schultz agrees and said the true intelligence of a plant is often left in the shadows of human intelligence.

“One of the reasons that we are talking about this is to get people to give plants a little more credit, and think a little more carefully about what they are, what they’re like and what they are doing,” Schultz said. “If you’re going to do that you have to ask questions about behavior and intelligence and thinking and so forth.”

Schultz said there are still many mysteries left to uncover about the secret lives of plants, and helping people understand that plants are more complex than they think could help lead to more answers.

This story originally aired as part of Under the Microscope, a weekly program about science, health, and technology in mid-Missouri.