​Plants Do Math To Calculate Food

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June 25, 2013
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Plants do complex math to make sure they have enough food to get them through the night, and can adjust their rate of starch consumption to prevent starvation when they are unable to feed themselves in the sun.

In a new study published in the journal eLife, researchers from the John Innes Centre (JIC) in Norfolk, England, found that plants make ultra-precise adjustments to their rate of starch consumption so that by the time the sun rises, they’ve used up 95 percent of their stores. Plants, in other words, use basic math to maximize their efficiency.

This research is the first “concrete example in a fundamental biological process of such a sophisticated arithmetic calculation,” says Martin Howard, a mathematics modeler.

“This is the first concrete example in a fundamental biological process of such a sophisticated arithmetic calculation,” Howard added.

During the night, mechanisms inside the leaf measure the size of the starch store and estimate the length of time until dawn. Information about time comes from an internal clock, similar to the human body clock.

“The capacity to perform arithmetic calculation is vital for plant growth and productivity,” JIC metabolic biologist Alison Smith said.

Yes, this claim does make the study sound a bit like a grab for attention. But the description makes sense. Smith says that “the calculations are precise so that plants prevent starvation but also make the most efficient use of their food.” It’s akin to a hiker packing just the right amount of food for a week-long journey into the wilderness. Pack too much, and not only will you be overburdened, but the excess food will go to waste; fail to pack enough, and… well, you know.

“If the starch store is used too fast, plants will starve and stop growing during the night,” adds Smith. “If the store is used too slowly, some of it will be wasted.”