A study published Tuesday in the scientific journal BMC Ecology reveals that plants are able to communicate with each other even when light, scent and touch have been removed from the equation, leading scientists to speculate that there's a wholly different mechanism they use to encourage each other's growth.

Specifically, scientists suggested that plants might be communicating with "nanomechanical vibrations' that travel underground as a "signaling mechanism," letting other plants know their presence and to plan accordingly.

It's long been known that planting basil near other species can tend to encourage its neighbor's growth, and it's not new that plants communicate with each other through shade, chemical smells, root structures and other forms of touch.

What scientists at the University of Western Australia were looking at specifically is if there's any other ways that plants communicate, and what they found is astonishing. By planting chili pepper next to basil, then separating them from all known methods of plant interaction, the chili plant still grew as if it knew the basil was there.

"We have previously suggested that acoustic signals may offer such a mechanism for mediating plant-plant relationships," they explained in their conclusion (PDF), "and proposed that such signals may be generated in plants by biochemical processes within the cell, where nanomechanical oscillations of various components in the cytoskeleton can produce a spectrum of vibrations."

Their latest findings bolster that theory, they wrote, and could lead to a better understanding of how to encourage record food crop yields by studying these oscillations and how they are received and processed by other plants.


Photo: Laurelville Mennonite Church Center vis Flickr, creative commons licensed.

Correction: A prior version of this story misconstrued "nanomechanical vibrations" with sound waves.