Prince Charles was widely ridiculed 20 years ago when he declared on television that he talked to his plants. “I just come and talk to the plants, really. It’s very important to talk. They respond, don’t they?” In the 1990s, Dutch princess Irene van Lippe-Biesterfeld caused a similar furor when she wrote in her book Dialogue with Nature that she talked to trees. But what was once dismissed as eccentricity has recently gained some scientific credibility. Researchers at the National Institute of Agricultural Science and Technology in Suwon, South Korea, have discovered two genes in rice that react to sound.
The Korean study, which succeeds a series of similar but often controversial studies conducted in recent decades, is significant because if plants really do respond to sound, a whole new, ecologically friendly field could be inaugurated: acoustic farming.
The Koreans began their research by playing 14 different pieces of classical music, including Beethoven’s Mondschein Sonatas, to rice plants in their laboratory. At first, they detected no reaction to the music from the rice genes. That changed, however, when they exposed the rice to specific sound frequencies. The genes rbcS and Ald became more active at frequencies of 125 and 250 hertz and less active when exposed to lower 50 hertz frequencies. To rule out the possibility that light could affect the results, the study was repeated in the dark. The outcome was the same.
According to the Korean team, the results indicate it might be possible to turn certain crop genes on and off through acoustic signals — for example, genes that determine when a plant flowers. This could decrease costs and would be more environmentally friendly than the current method of activating genes using chemicals. “These results suggest that sound could be an alternative to light as a gene regulator,” the researchers wrote in Molecular Breeding (published online on July 20, 2007). The possibility of regulating crop growth with sound offers — eco-friendly — prospects for agriculture. Sound could replace chemical fertilizers as a way to stimulate growth, and sound could also be used — instead of pesticides — to keep weeds at bay.
The Korean researchers were also able to isolate the genes and use them in different combinations. The effect of sound on the genes remained the same. This finding suggests it might be possible to transplant the sound-sensitive genes into another organism to realize the same effects.