03 April 2020

Adaptation and resilience: synonyms of "intelligence", to be read under "plants”

Resistant to adversity and sensitive to all external inputs, plants have an extraordinary communicative power and memory. That's why getting in tune with the plant world teaches how to become self-sufficient and sensible.

The obvious precondition is to be found in life: the most complex existing assumption, the highest trend topic in the ranking of the all-time priorities.

This reasoning comes to us from Stefano Mancuso, director of LINV (Laboratorio Internazionale di Neurobiologia Vegetale - International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology), author of numerous works and the mind behind as many studies on the subject of "plant intelligence".

You might say: what is the connection between the two topics? After all, human life disregards vegetation and undergoes many other influences. Sociability, economy, education, family, work. Nothing to do with plants.

And here's the mistake: because, it is estimated that the biomass of the planet is composed of between 95% and 99.5% of plants. This means that associating life first with humans, then with animals and, only in the last instance, with plant organisms, is (according to the numbers) a serious error of assessment. If plants became extinct, we would soon follow them, while this would not be the case the other way round.  

Don't worry: this underestimation has very ancient origins. In his ark, even Noah forgot to save the plant species indispensable for continuing life after the universal deluge. Despite this, however, the first thing he did after the flood was to plant a vine.

Let's focus instead on modern times: because right now, being in constant search for models, plants can suggest the winning strategy. The one they have been practicing for millennia and for which, they have been waiting for us, patiently.

Plants: pioneering, self-sufficient and deeply rooted organisms

Therefore, precursors: plants are pioneering organisms. This means, in a nutshell, that they are the species that first managed to settle on land. Extremely fertile, it must be said. Because it is that of survival.

Firstly, plants use very little energy and produce far more than they consume. They are autotrophic, that is energetically self-sufficient. They do not depend on other living organisms and rely on chlorophyll photosynthesis to synthesise organic compounds from inorganic substances. Thus, they feed themselves.

What led them to develop these remarkable adaptability skills? Simple: the inability to solve their problems by moving. Unlike humans and animals, plants are sedentary and must work to survive whilst staying right where they are, in the corner of the world where they were born.

They endure thunderstorms, provide nourishment for insects, are reborn from the ashes of a fire. But leaves, flowers and fruits will always have to find a way to blossom again, learning from the past and adopting special defence mechanisms.

Anchored to the ground with their powerful roots, plants have developed an actual chemical language over time, indispensable for interacting with the surrounding environment.

If you can't move, you need to refine your survival techniques: and, first of all, you have to find strength in your "entirety": in every tiny part of your body.




Modularity and sensitivity: plant neurobiology reveals the strategy for anticipating history

In addition to being pioneering organisms, plants are modular organisms. Not being able to have single organs which - if attacked - would cause their death, they distribute the functions that animals are used to concentrating in each individual organ throughout all the "body".

To be able to continue to develop undisturbed, however, strengthening their defences is not enough: it is necessary to think ahead. How? By listening to all the signals and elaborating their response. Plant neurobiology studies precisely these skills: hearing, seeing, interacting, evaluating, deciding. In a word, communicating.

Plants never actually vegetate.

They receive, decode, produce and send messages continuously, although they lack a nervous system and a brain to which to transmit the collected signals. They are even supportive towards "sisters" belonging to the same species. And, against all odds, they dance. They recognise sound and music, store it and derive wellbeing from it. Which they give back to us, without asking for anything in return.

Theirs is a real language. The decisions they make are not automatic, but the result of processing a great deal of chemical-physical information. And this is where their defence strategy comes back into the picture: interacting with other plants and predators - especially herbivores and pathogenic organisms - to prevent their moves. And living together, despite everything.

The (underground) network connection which makes plants communicate

Let's leave science for the time being. Given that plants can memorise more than twenty chemical-physical parameters, the magic lies in their extraordinary ability to network.

Communication cannot exist in the absence of a sender or a recipient.

And accepting to change in order to live better, is one of the greatest manifestations of maturity and intelligence.

What happens on the surface influences what happens underground and plants are able to transmit this through their roots.

It is as if they enriched the treasure chest of information dear to their health by assimilating the information from outside, from the outside world, and distributing it to relatives, neighbours and strangers.

There is an entire world of connections underground. Like wise advisers, experts on life and its adversities, plants hand out mutual advice and adapt their phenotype to the environment.

And they respect their own times, as they know that a large part of the elixir of long life is hidden here.

Resilience in the law of flowing time. Slowly, to reach further

The ability to withstand a knock without breaking is a concept as positive as it is often used improperly.

Instinctively it leads to thinking on the contrary of fragility, of vulnerability. But one thing does not exclude the other: resilience is directly proportional to the reaction when facing a danger, not to the exposure to the danger itself.

It takes time to understand, elaborate a response and react.

The life cycle of the plant is marked by many moments. Germination, flowering, ripening, colour change, fall: these are all phases which must follow a course, succeed one another, to be fully successful.

To be able to repair a damage and restart, the plant must first resist in an adverse condition.

And vegetation is known to endure situations which would be prohibitive for us human beings.

A resilient ecosystem needs the contribution of all its inhabitants. The cognitive system of plants is a source of resources and teachings for the human being and deflects us from "wandering".

It reminds us to turn to earth again and to look beneath its surface.

To see (and surely feel) the importance of respecting biodiversity, the real secret of our health.




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