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Plant Responses to Brief Touching: A Mechanism for Early Neighbour Detection?

Published: 09 December 2016

In natural habitats plants can be exposed to brief and light contact with neighbouring plants. This mechanical stimulus may represent a cue that induces responses to nearby plants, according to a study from Swedish University of Agriculture. However, little is known about the effect of touching on plant growth and interaction with insect herbivores.

To simulate contact between plants, the researchers used a soft brush to apply light and brief mechanical stimuli to terminal leaves of potato Solanum tuberosum L.

The number of non-glandular trichomes on the leaf surface was counted on images made by light microscope while glandular trichomes and pavement cells were counted on images made under scanning electronic microscope.

Volatile compounds were identified and quantified using coupled gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS). Treated plants changed their pattern of biomass distribution; they had lower stem mass fraction and higher branch and leaf mass fraction than untouched plants. Size, weight and number of tubers were not significantly affected. Touching did not cause trichome damage nor change their total number on touched terminal leaves.

However, on primary leaves the number of glandular trichomes and pavement cells was significantly increased. Touching altered the volatile emission of treated plants; they released higher quantities of the sesquiterpenes (E)-β-caryophyllene, germacrene D-4-ol and (E)-nerolidol, and lower quantities of the terpenes (E)-ocimene and linalool, indicating a systemic effect of the treatment. The odour of touched plants was significantly less preferred by the aphids Macrosiphum euphorbiae and Myzus persicae compared to odour of untouched plants.

The results suggest that light contact may have a potential role in the detection of neighbouring plants and may affect plant-insect interactions.

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