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Plant responses to wind and touch

The shoot of a pea plant winds around a trellis, while a tree grows on an angle in response to strong prevailing winds. These are examples of how plants respond to touch or wind.

The movement of a plant subjected to constant directional pressure is called thigmotropism    , from the Greek words thigma meaning “touch,” and tropism implying “direction.” Tendrils are one example of this. The meristematic region of tendrils is very touch sensitive; light touch will evoke a quick coiling response. Cells in contact with a support surface contract, whereas cells on the opposite side of the support expand ( [link] ). Application of jasmonic acid is sufficient to trigger tendril coiling without a mechanical stimulus.

A thigmonastic    response is a touch response independent of the direction of stimulus [link] . In the Venus flytrap, two modified leaves are joined at a hinge and lined with thin fork-like tines along the outer edges. Tiny hairs are located inside the trap. When an insect brushes against these trigger hairs, touching two or more of them in succession, the leaves close quickly, trapping the prey. Glands on the leaf surface secrete enzymes that slowly digest the insect. The released nutrients are absorbed by the leaves, which reopen for the next meal.

Thigmomorphogenesis is a slow developmental change in the shape of a plant subjected to continuous mechanical stress. When trees bend in the wind, for example, growth is usually stunted and the trunk thickens. Strengthening tissue, especially xylem, is produced to add stiffness to resist the wind’s force. Researchers hypothesize that mechanical strain induces growth and differentiation to strengthen the tissues. Ethylene and jasmonate are likely involved in thigmomorphogenesis.

Use the menu at the left to navigate to three short movies: a Venus fly trap capturing prey, the progressive closing of sensitive plant leaflets, and the twining of tendrils.

Defense responses against herbivores and pathogens

Plants face two types of enemies: herbivores and pathogens. Herbivores both large and small use plants as food, and actively chew them. Pathogens are agents of disease. These infectious microorganisms, such as fungi, bacteria, and nematodes, live off of the plant and damage its tissues. Plants have developed a variety of strategies to discourage or kill attackers.

The first line of defense in plants is an intact and impenetrable barrier. Bark and the waxy cuticle can protect against predators. Other adaptations against herbivory include thorns, which are modified branches, and spines, which are modified leaves. They discourage animals by causing physical damage and inducing rashes and allergic reactions. A plant’s exterior protection can be compromised by mechanical damage, which may provide an entry point for pathogens. If the first line of defense is breached, the plant must resort to a different set of defense mechanisms, such as toxins and enzymes.

Secondary metabolites are compounds that are not directly derived from photosynthesis and are not necessary for respiration or plant growth and development. Many metabolites are toxic, and can even be lethal to animals that ingest them. Some metabolites are alkaloids, which discourage predators with noxious odors (such as the volatile oils of mint and sage) or repellent tastes (like the bitterness of quinine). Other alkaloids affect herbivores by causing either excessive stimulation (caffeine is one example) or the lethargy associated with opioids. Some compounds become toxic after ingestion; for instance, glycol cyanide in the cassava root releases cyanide only upon ingestion by the herbivore.

Mechanical wounding and predator attacks activate defense and protection mechanisms both in the damaged tissue and at sites farther from the injury location. Some defense reactions occur within minutes: others over several hours. The infected and surrounding cells may die, thereby stopping the spread of infection.

Long-distance signaling elicits a systemic response aimed at deterring the predator. As tissue is damaged, jasmonates may promote the synthesis of compounds that are toxic to predators. Jasmonates also elicit the synthesis of volatile compounds that attract parasitoids, which are insects that spend their developing stages in or on another insect, and eventually kill their host. The plant may activate abscission of injured tissue if it is damaged beyond repair.

Section summary

Plants respond to light by changes in morphology and activity. Irradiation by red light converts the photoreceptor phytochrome to its far-red light-absorbing form—Pfr. This form controls germination and flowering in response to length of day, as well as triggers photosynthesis in dormant plants or those that just emerged from the soil. Blue-light receptors, cryptochromes, and phototropins are responsible for phototropism. Amyloplasts, which contain heavy starch granules, sense gravity. Shoots exhibit negative gravitropism, whereas roots exhibit positive gravitropism. Plant hormones—naturally occurring compounds synthesized in small amounts—can act both in the cells that produce them and in distant tissues and organs. Auxins are responsible for apical dominance, root growth, directional growth toward light, and many other growth responses. Cytokinins stimulate cell division and counter apical dominance in shoots. Gibberellins inhibit dormancy of seeds and promote stem growth. Abscisic acid induces dormancy in seeds and buds, and protects plants from excessive water loss by promoting stomatal closure. Ethylene gas speeds up fruit ripening and dropping of leaves. Plants respond to touch by rapid movements (thigmotropy and thigmonasty) and slow differential growth (thigmomorphogenesis). Plants have evolved defense mechanisms against predators and pathogens. Physical barriers like bark and spines protect tender tissues. Plants also have chemical defenses, including toxic secondary metabolites and hormones, which elicit additional defense mechanisms.

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, Biology. OpenStax CNX. Feb 29, 2016 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11448/1.10
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