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What a Plant Knows

What a Plant Knows

Daniel Chamovitz

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Q&A with Daniel Chamovitz on What a Plant Knows

  1. Can you tell us what you think is the most fascinating fact or idea that readers will learn about in your book?

I think most readers will be fascinated to discover, like I was originally, that plants sense and respond to diverse sensory inputs. While most of us see plants as basically inanimate, passive objects, they actually have a varied and sensitive sensory system that helps them adapt to changing environments. Plants live in a world filled with rich sensory inputs—changes in light during the day, and various tactile insults, such as leaf-eating creatures or blowing winds, to name a few. To cope with this, plants have to see, to feel, and to smell their environment in order to adapt and survive. And perhaps most surprising is that the way plants sense their environment is in many cases quite similar to the way we also sense our environment!

  1. What’s your favorite plant, and why?

That’s easy—arabidopsis! Not that arabidopsis is so outwardly beautiful or tasty (though it can make an interesting addition to salad!), but this little mustard plant is beautiful in its simplicity and its utility to science. Thanks to arabidopsis studies, we now understand how a variety of other plants make striking flowers and tasty fruits, and genes identified in arabidopsis have been subsequently used both to increase agricultural output AND to fight human disease!

  1. Where did your initial fascination with plants “stem” from?

I took a year off between high school and college, and spent part of the year as a volunteer on a kibbutz in Israel. My job on the kibbutz was to pull the irrigation equipment through the fields. When you drive a tractor, you have lots of time to think, and one of the things I noticed was that after the alfalfa was cut, it grew back lush and green in a few weeks, while the wheat, once harvestednever grew back. At the time I knew literally nothing about plants, but I thought that if we could figure out why alfalfa continues to grow, and transfer the trait to wheat, then we could solve world hunger. This was a pivotal moment in my life, when I switched from being a pre-med student to a plant genetics student. (By the way, anyone with a little knowledge of plants, which I didn’t have back then, would know that alfalfa grows back after being cut because, like the grass in our lawns, the growing part of alfalfa is underground, while the growing part of wheat is at its tip. Once this part is cut off, the plant can’t grow anymore!)

  1. What’s your favorite plant that’s indigenous to your current residence in Tel Aviv?

In Hebrew it’s called the hatzav and its scientific name is Drimia maritime. The hatzav is wondrous because it grows and flowers like a Swiss clock around August 20, heralding the end of the summer and the approaching fall. Out of nowhere, the hatzav sprouts and rapidly grows a two-to-three-foot stalk with hundreds of little white flowers. The flowers open over several weeks progressively from the base to the tip, resulting in a very impressive floral display.

  1. What’s one of the craziest plant experiments you’ve ever conducted or witnessed?

Actually what I thought was a “crazy” experiment has turned out to be a new project in my lab! Someone I know was counseled to take a chemical produced by broccoli, instead of tamoxifen, as a preventative for recurrent breast cancer. I was curious why broccoli (or plants in general) make sought-after anti-cancer chemicals since plants don’t get cancer. So I bought some of the stuff, and put it on seedlings. To my surprise, the plants stopped growing immediately! We’re now studying how this broccoli chemical regulates plant growth. (Unfortunately, I have to add that my relative now regrets choosing the broccoli chemical over the tamoxifen, as her cancer returned—so please don’t take this as a promotion for broccoli over traditional medicines!)

But the all-time craziest experiment has to come from Darwin. Darwin, an avid bassoonist, was curious if plants would respond to his bassoon playing. As I relate in What a Plant Knows, his plants turned out to be oblivious to his music, and he inevitably called his experiment foolish!

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