Plants Can Be Altruistic, Says New Study
We don’t generally think of plants as being capable of altruism, but a new study out of the University of Colorado Boulder suggests otherwise.
The research team analyzed examples of corn, in which each fertilized seed contained two “siblings,” an embryo and a corresponding bit of tissue, known as endosperm, that feeds the embryo as the seed grows, according to CU-Boulder Professor Pamela Diggle.
The growth and behavior of embryos and endosperm in seeds with the same mother and father were compared with the growth and behavior of those that had genetically different parents.
“The results indicated embryos with the same mother and father as the endosperm in their seed weighed significantly more than embryos with the same mother but a different father,” said Diggle. “We found that endosperm that does not share the same father as the embryo does not hand over as much food — it appears to be acting less cooperatively.”
Earlier research showed that plants show preferential treatment, withholding nutrients from inferior offspring when resources are limited, according to Diggle. “Our study is the first to specifically test the idea of cooperation among siblings in plants.”
The paper is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Chi-Chih Wu, a CU-Boulder doctoral student and Professor William “Ned” Friedman, a professor at Harvard University co-authored the paper.
“One of the most fundamental laws of nature is that if you are going to be an altruist, give it up to your closest relatives,” said Friedman in a press release. “Altruism only evolves if the benefactor is a close relative of the beneficiary. When the endosperm gives all of its food to the embryo and then dies, it doesn’t get more altruistic than that.”
Photo courtesy CU-Boulder Pictured: Graduate student Chi-Chih Wu
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