Plants Avoid Starvation at Night By Doing Basic Math

Researchers from the John Innes Centre have shown that plants are capable of doing basic division — a calculation that helps them consume their starch reserves at a steady pace during nighttime.

Plants are incredible, and a far cry from the seemingly stupid, inert vegetative matter that they’re made out to be. They can move, communicate with each other, and even perform functions that rely on quantum physics. And now it appears that they can even do math.

Plants are in a kind of bind after the sun sets. With their fuel source out of sight, they have to fall back on their starch reserves to prevent starvation.

But as Professor Martin Howard and his team have shown, plants can make precise adjustments to their rate of starch consumption. The researchers used mathematical modeling techniques to make this determination, discovering that a division calculation is carried out inside a plant.

At night, a mechanism inside the leaf measures the size of the starch store, while information about the time of day comes from an internal clock. The process itself is regulated by the presence of two kinds of molecules, “S” for starch and “T” for time. The S molecules stimulate starch breakdown, while the T molecules act as the regulator, so the rate of starch consumption can be established by the ratio of S molecules to T molecules.

In other words, S divided by T. Pretty cool.

"This is the first concrete example in biology of such a sophisticated arithmetic calculation," said Martin Howard.

It’s important to remember that plants aren’t actually conscious, or aware in the sense that they’re performing these calculations. Rather, they use automated internal mechanisms to make it happen.

The study will be published in an upcoming edition of eLife, but you can read it here first.

Image: PD Photo, Jon Sullivan