The Amazing World of Plants ~ Evolutionary biologists study altruism among plants

Do plants perform best with family or strangers? Researchers consider intricacies of social interactions. Hamilton, Ont. November, 2011— In the fight for survival, plants are capable of complex social behaviours and may exhibit altruism towards family members, but aggressively compete with strangers. A growing body of work suggests plants recognize and respond to the presence and identity of their neighbours. But can plants cooperate with their relatives? While some studies have shown that siblings perform best—suggesting altruism towards relatives—other studies have shown that when less related plants grow together the group can actually outperform siblings. This implies the group benefits from its diversity by dividing precious resources effectively and competing less. A team from McMaster University suggests plants can benefit from both altruism and biodiversity but when these processes occur at the same time, it is difficult to predict the outcome.“The greatest challenge for understanding plant social

interactions is we can’t interpret plant behaviours as easily as we do those of animals,” explains Susan Dudley, an associate professor in the Department of Biology at McMaster. “Though we have shown plants change traits in the presence of relatives, we need to determine if this is cooperation. Linking the plant behaviours with their benefits is challenging when multiple processes co-occur.” Dudley and a team of researchers disentangle the sometimes contradictory research in the latest edition of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, describing how the identity and presence of neighbours affect many processes acting on plant populations. The problem, she says, is that plant social interactions are treated as a black box, with researchers only looking at the output, or the fitness of the plant, in sibling competition. But they need to investigate the mechanisms inside the box—by describing how  traits of individuals affect fitness—to understand how the output is reached and which mechanisms are occurring to get there. “Simply put, social environment matters to plants. If we first acknowledge that kin cooperation and resource partitioning are co-occurring, we can begin to address some very important questions,” says Amanda File, a graduate student in the Department of Biology at McMaster. “Among these questions is whether there is a link between kin recognition and plant performance, whether plant kin recognition can improve crop yield and how kin recognition shapes

communities and ecosystems” says Guillermo Murphy, a graduate student in the Department of Biology at McMaster. –  Prof. Susan Dudley: Research Interests & Activities: Evolutionary ecology of carbon acquisition traits in plants: kin recognition in plants; phenotypic plasticity to competitors; local adaptation to abiotic stress. Biography; As an evolutionary ecologist, Susan Dudley is interested in how plants adapt to differing environments. Her particular interest is in plant traits that affect biomass acquisition. This interest has led her most recently to ask if plants could recognize their kin, by measuring how plant traits are affected by growing with relatives compared to strangers of the same species. Dudley did her Bachelor and Master’s degrees at McGill University, her Ph.D. at University of Chicago, was a postdoctoral researcher at Brown University, and has been employed at McMaster University first as an assistant professor and now as an associate professor. In her Master’s, she studied physiological ecology of subarctic lichens. For Dudley’s Ph.D., she brought together physiological ecology and evolution to measure natural selection on plant physiological traits in the field and genetic differentiation in the greenhouse for a species of plant that grows on Great Lake beaches. Her postdoctoral research in the deciduous forest examined adaptation to a different kind of environment, that resulting from the presence of other plants. It was well known that

plants sense neighbors from the color of the light, and respond with elongated stems, but her team was able to show that in the natural environment, this response was adaptive. In her research at McMaster, her lab has further explored plant responses to other plants and to the abiotic environment. The main finding from the lab over the last six years is that plants recognize relatives in competition. For animals, the ability to recognize relatives is recognized as an important for the evolution of altruism and social interactions, but this is the first time kin recognition was found in plant competition. She has now found kin recognition in four species of plants, and three papers have been published. These revolutionary results change how competition among plants can be viewed. Her current goal is develop the study of plant kin recognition from an interesting phenomenon into an emerging new field of biology. “For your research, let your curiosity drive you, and for your personal life, don’t rush to compromise on what you want, because you may be able to get it all.” Susan Aline Dudley.  – McMaster University, one of four Canadian universities listed among the Top 100 universities in the world, is renowned for its innovation in both learning and discovery. It has a student population of 23,000, and more than 140,000 alumni in 128 countries.  – For more information, please contact: Susan Dudley, Associate Professor, Department of Biology. Amanda File, Graduate Student, Department of Biology.  Guillermo Murphy, Graduate Student, Department of Biology.  News from: McMaster University

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