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Sustainable Ecosystems and Community News: Study Suggests Plants Can Be Altruistic Too



From: Allison Winter, ENN
Published February 4, 2013 10:54 AM

Study Suggests Plants Can Be Altruistic Too

Altruism is the behavior that exudes the selfless concern of one to benefit the well being of another at one's own expense. In the animal kingdom, some of these altruistic notions can be when a dog raises orphaned cats or squirrels or when Vervet monkeys will warn fellow monkeys of the presence of predators even though their alarm call will increase their own chances of being attacked. However, altruism is not only linked to humans and members of the animal kingdom - according to a study from the University of Colorado Boulder, research suggests that some plants may also have an altruistic side.

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Researchers at CU Boulder studied corn in which each fertilized seed that contained two "siblings" — an embryo (part of a seed) and an endosperm (tissue that provides nutrition to the embryo as the seed grows).

They compared the growth and behavior of the embryos and endosperm in seeds sharing the same mother and father with the growth and behavior of embryos and endosperm that had genetically different parents.

"The results indicated embryos with the same mother and father as the endosperm in their seed weighed significantly more than embryos with the same mother but a different father," said CU-Boulder Professor Pamela Diggle. "We found that endosperm that does not share the same father as the embryo does not hand over as much food -- it appears to be acting less cooperatively."

Diggle explains that previous research has shown that plants can withhold nutrients from inferior offspring when resources are limited. "Our study is the first to specifically test the idea of cooperation among siblings in plants."

"One of the most fundamental laws of nature is that if you are going to be an altruist, give it up to your closest relatives," said William "Ned" Friedman, co-author of the paper and professor at Harvard University who helped conduct research. "Altruism only evolves if the benefactor is a close relative of the beneficiary. When the endosperm gives all of its food to the embryo and then dies, it doesn’t get more altruistic than that."

The paper can be found in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Read more at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Corn image via Shutterstock.

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