“Heard It on the Grapevine: The Secret Society of Plants”

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The Story

“Heard It on the Grapevine: The Secret Society of Plants”
http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20928051.500-heard-it-on-the-grapevine-the-secret-society-of-plants.html [abstract; subscription required for full access]
by Ferris Jabr
New Scientist, March 29, 2011

The Pitch

[Jabr notes: This was one of the first two articles I successfully freelanced. My basic strategy in writing the pitch letters was to open with something that could be the lede, summarize the main story and ideas, explain why it was a good fit for that particular publication and briefly note my previous published work. In both cases, I worked from previous drafts completed as class assignments and the openings of my pitch letters were largely conserved in the articles themselves. Perhaps that makes them somewhat unusual cases.]

Whispers in the Leaves, Rumors Among Roots

Biologists begin to eavesdrop on the plant kingdom’s secret chemical chatter By Ferris Jabr
Every fall, swarms of dusty gray moths engulf the forests of birch trees that populate the mountainsides of northern Scandinavia. The autumnal moths lay their eggs on birch twigs so, come springtime, the larvae that hatch can feast upon the new leaves of the budding birch. Often, so many moths flock to the trees that their larvae completely strip miles and miles of birch forest.

This may seem like a battle the birch is doomed to lose, but the trees have found a secret weapon growing all around them. Researchers recently discovered that some birch trees form alliances with one of their neighboring plants—a kind of rhododendron that constantly wafts a bouquet of noxious volatile compounds. By borrowing and re-releasing this poisonous perfume, birch trees can deter autumnal moths and their larvae, both of which avoid the astringent odors. In other words, mountain birch trees appear to rely on their neighbors for a scent-based disguise.

“Smelling like rhododendrons lets the birch tree confuse the moth, who will decide it’s chosen the wrong plant species and fly away,” says Jarmo Holopainen, an environmental scientist at the University of Eastern Finland. “It’s a kind of olfactory camouflage. This kind of interaction has never been observed in the field before.”

Published in the March 2010 issue of New Phytologist, Holopainen’s study is the most recent in a growing body of research demonstrating the unexpectedly complex ways in which plants interact, forming living communities whose roots and leaves rustle with botanical gossip. Plants, it turns out, have a secret social life.

“Plants don’t go out to parties or to watch the movies, but they do have a social network,” says Suzanne Simard, a forest ecologist at the University of British Columbia in Canada. “They support each other and they fight with each other. The more we look at plant signaling and communication, the more we learn. It’s really incredible.”

Although biologists have long recognized that plants—like animals—form social communities in which they compete and cooperate, research in the last decade has begun to reveal just how subtle and sophisticated these interactions really are. Plants eavesdrop on each other’s chemical chatter—sometimes sympathetically, sometimes selfishly. They recognize and prefer family members to strangers. And they even share common resources through vast underground labyrinths. All of these social interactions rely on complex chemical signaling that botanists are still trying to understand. But advanced tools and clever investigative techniques have facilitated many recent discoveries that surprise even the experts.

I propose writing a 2000-word article about the secret social life of plants. My article would describe several amazing and recently discovered plant interactions. In addition to the birch tree behavior described above, I would cover the following: some plants warn one another of hungry herbivores by releasing chemical alarm signals; tall trees in full sunlight feed excess carbon molecules to younger shaded trees using underground highways of tangled roots and fungi; a beach weed named sea rocket restrains its root growth when it is growing near its siblings, but steals resources from strangers without hesitation; and a parasitic vine called dodder can smell out the telltale scent of its preferred victim.

I have lined up several distinguished sources: in addition to Holopainen and Simard, I would interview Andre Kessler, a plant physiologist at Cornell University; Susan Murch, a plant scientist at the University of British Columbia Okanagan in Canada; Susan Dudley, an evolutionary plant ecologist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario; and Consuelo De Moraes, a biologist at Pennsylvania State University.

The closest article I could find in New Scientist’s archives is this 2007 piece. My article differs from this piece in that it focuses exclusively on plant-plant interactions of all kinds, not plant- animal interactions. The only overlap between the two articles is the discussion of sea rocket, the weed that can recognize its siblings. My article also features some new research I have not seen discussed anywhere else, specifically the birch trees and the forest labyrinths. Although I have come across news stories about social plants by The New York Times, New Scientist and Wired, I have not found any article that brings together all the new research on the social aspects of plant life and communication as comprehensively as what I have in mind.

I have published articles with Scientific American, Scientific American MIND, Psychology Today, Popular Mechanics, Scienceline, Environmental Health News and The Daily Climate.
My previous pieces on plants include an explainer for Scienceline on how the Venus flytrap works and a critical look at whether plants can “think and remember,” published online with Scientific American.

I will receive an MA in Science, Health and Environmental Reporting from New York University this December.

I thank you for your consideration and hope to hear from you soon. Ferris Jabr

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