“Plants do maths”. Image by Stuart RF King (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

Plants can ‘do maths’

Plants perform complex arithmetic calculations to help manage their food reserves over the night.

eLife
eLife
May 18, 2015 · 3 min read

Many organisms build up reserves of food when it is available so that metabolism and growth can continue when food is no longer available. Plants, for example, use energy from the sun to produce starch during the day, which is then used as a source of energy during the night. In some plants the amount of starch increases linearly with time during the day, and declines linearly with time during the night, so that the plant contains very little starch when the sun rises the following day. Although a plant is likely to starve if it cannot store or consume starch effectively, very little is known about the mechanisms that plants use to ensure that they store enough starch and do not use it up too quickly.

Plants are able to track the time to dawn using their internal circadian clock so, as Antonio Scialdone, Sam Mugford and co-workers point out, if they can also track how much starch they have stored, they might somehow be dividing the amount of starch by the time to dawn to work out the rate at which starch can be consumed so that it lasts until sunrise. But could plants actually perform such calculations?

To gain some insight into this puzzle, Scialdone, Mugford and co-workers constructed mathematical models in which information about the size of the starch store and the time until dawn was encoded in the concentrations of two kinds of molecules (called S for starch and T for time). In one model, they propose that the S molecules stimulate starch consumption, and the T molecules prevent this from happening, with the rate of starch consumption being equal to the concentration of S molecules divided by the concentration of T molecules. These models were able to reproduce the results of previous experiments, including experiments in which dawn arrived unexpectedly early or unexpectedly late.

Scialdone, Mugford and co-workers then performed experiments which confirmed predictions of the models for the pattern of starch consumption in plants lacking relevant enzymes. These experiments also revealed that an enzyme called PWD may be the point at which results of the division computation are integrated into the starch consumption pathway. More generally, this work shows that sophisticated arithmetic computations can be important in biology. Moreover, whereas computers rely on digital logic, these findings show that arithmetic computations can also be performed by exploiting the analogue dynamics that take place between molecules.

To find out more

Listen to Martin Howard and Alison Smith talk about plants performing arithmetic division in episode 2 of the eLife podcast.

Read the eLife research paper on which this eLife Digest is based: “Arabidopsis plants perform arithmetic division to prevent starvation at night” (June 25, 2013).

eLife is an open-access journal that publishes outstanding research in the life sciences and biomedicine.

The main text on this page was reused (with modification) under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 International License. The original “eLife digest” can be found in the linked eLife research paper.

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Roots and Shoots

Delving into ground-breaking research in plant science

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