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Do tomatoes know something we don’t?

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You knew you were in for some fun when plant scientist Daniel Chamovitz offered to explain “Why a Tomato Has Stronger Survival Instincts Than a Human” (Wall Street Journal, August 2, 2012):

The most amazing aspect of a plant’s life, to me, is that it integrates this varied sensory information, yielding an organism exquisitely suited to its environment – and this integration occurs in lieu of a nervous system. Leaves, flowers, and roots exchange information regarding light, pests, weather and water, and together this leads to different genes being turned on and off — all in the absence of neurons. So apparently a nervous system is only one evolutionary adaptation for information processing – it is necessary for human beings and other animals to process information, but that isn’t the case for plants.

Now, going back to the tomato, one adaptation that helps a plant survive in a changing environment is that it often has more than one copy of a given gene. A plant can have one copy of a gene for a normal environment, and a second copy which comes into play when it’s under environmental stress. Take a plant’s ability to sense light, for example – plants have up to 12 genes that encode different types of photoreceptors, which is more than twice that in humans. Among these genes, one will be used for high intensity blue light and one for low intensity blue light, and so on.

Our seemingly simple green neighbors utilize their genetic complexity to sense and survive adversity. They compensate for their inability to migrate away from a bad environment by having more genes which give them greater genetic options for responding to changing and extreme circumstances.

Well, plants are a different world. They don’t know anything but something knows it for them. And all this is not a big accident.

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