It's in our Nature
April 2015

We've been witness to some fascinating research on plant biology over the past thirty years and it has challenged our beliefs. We are scarcely beginning to objectively integrate the astonishing results that come from this research. We hold animals and particularly humans so far above all others that we may have neglected taking a closer look at the remarkable mechanisms arising from the plant world. And yet…

Cooperation, network organization and the valorisation of each component's potential appear to be how systems maintain their balance.

Plants are highly sophisticated, much more than we imagined. It is now believed that they can rely upon some 700 different types of foliar sensors. I remember the first articles in which communication between plants was addressed and the amount of scepticism this notion generated. It has since been clearly demonstrated that when plant leaves are under predatory attack, they not only react by producing and emitting toxic volatile organic compounds that deter and drive away the enemy, but it eventually reaches the sensors of neighbouring plants that, when alerted, begin their own type of chemical warfare before the attack even begins.

Researchers then turned their focus to what was happening beneath the ground. The results were just as surprising. We now know that plants are much more than individuals engaged in a battle for the survival of the fittest. The truth is very different: Plants form support communities in the soil. For example, very close connections were observed among the roots of a single species that allowed them to share different genetic skills, to develop greater resistance to heavy wind and rain and to improve their resilience after a traumatic event. 

It doesn't stop there. These communities can also integrate different species. A large network of filaments has been identified as existing in the forest's subsoil, similar to an underground Internet, which allows trees to communicate through interfaces made up of tiny little mushrooms. Thanks to this communication network, trees share carbon and nitrogen and, when needed, warning messages. Susan Simard, a professor with the University of British Columbia, has gone as far as comparing this incredible underground network to a humongous brain, where rootlets and mushrooms cooperate within an extremely complex system, just like axons and neurons interact in our brains!

This may seem like science-fiction, but it isn't! Despite Man's amazing thinking box, we don't have the monopoly over intelligence. It is no coincidence that Man, since the beginning of time, has instinctively turned to Nature for inspiration, to solve problems and make the most outrageous dreams come true. Edgar Morin, Research Director Emeritus at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) and doctor honoris causa< at several universities around the world, clearly stated: "Man is only reactivating a part of intelligence that had already organized and created living beings, including Himself: His intelligence is rediscovering inventions, processes, techniques, and discoveries that made up cellular organisation some two billion years ago."

Now that's something to think about. Nature if filled with examples of intra and inter-species cooperation. It has already been observed in the animal kingdom and observations in the world of plants have simply confirmed the notion. There is obviously a place for competition: Sometimes a legitimate defence is required. But cooperation, network organization and the valorisation of each component's potential appear to be how systems maintain their balance. In other words, we are naturally cooperative!


Colette Lebel, agr.
Director Cooperative Affairs
La Coop fédérée
Fax: 514 850-2567


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