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Collaborative Success Stories: Leaf Me Alone


University of Missouri scientists discover that plants hear predators.

When plants in the mustard family detect leaf-munching caterpillars, they make more pungent mustard oils to discourage the hungry pests. The caterpillars react by crawling away, rather than continuing to eat. But what if plants listen to detect an insect attack?

To find out, plant scientist Dr. Heidi Appel teamed up with insect communication expert Dr. Rex Cocroft. Using a cold laser, Cocroft recorded the delicate vibrations made when caterpillars feed on Arabidopsis leaves. The researchers replayed the vibrations to plants in the absence of the caterpillars and measured their chemical response. Plants that had previously encountered the pests produced higher levels of insect-repelling mustard oils, becoming primed to more quickly fight off the bugs.

The researchers’ findings drew interest from around the nation, with articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post, a segment on National Public Radio and a scholarly publication in Oecologia. With new funding from the National Science Foundation, they are expanding their study using brassica plants—the source of broccoli, cauliflower and other vegetables. The team will test how other plants respond to insect feeding vibrations and determine what features of the sounds trigger the change in plant defenses.

Dr. Heidi Appel is a Bond Life Sciences Center investigator and a senior plant sciences researcher in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, and Dr. Rex Cocroft is professor of biological sciences in the College of Arts and Science.

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Related Initiative(s):
Food for the Future