Researchers at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, have found that plants 'know' more about their environment than they are often given credit for, and that they can sense the presence of neighbouring plants through changes in water or nutrients available to them or through chemical cues in the soil, and adjust their own growth accordingly.
Dr. Susan Dudley and Amanda File of the university say they have found that plants that are grown alongside unrelated neighbours are more competitive than those that are grown with their siblings.
"That plants have a secret social life is something well known to plant ecologists," the Nature magazine quoted Dudley as saying.
She, however, says that the ability to recognize kin has not been demonstrated before. During the study published online in Biology Letters, Dudley and File grew batches of the Great Lakes sea rocket, a beach-dwelling plant, in pots of four. The plants either had specimens from the same maternal family or from several different families.
After two months, it was noted that plants grown with strangers had a greater mass of roots after than those sharing pots with siblings.
The researchers, however, have yet to find out the mechanism by which the plants work out who's who. Ariel Novoplansky, a plant biologist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, says that it might be possible that plants use immune proteins similar to what animals use to sense others around them.
He, however, says termed it a pure guess-work. "At this point I cannot imagine a mechanism by which this could happen. Nothing of this sort has been found before," he says.