Take a leaf from plants when it comes to neighborly behavior

·2-min read
In hostile conditions, plants can adapt so as not to shade their neighbors.

Whether you live in the city or in the country, it's hard to escape interactions with neighbors. From chatting to lending a hand, everyone has their own little ways of gaining the privileged status of the "good neighbor." Now, British researchers suggest that it could be worth taking a leaf from plants when it comes to neighborly behavior in times of stress.

Everyone has a different take on what neighborly relationships should look like. Some think that a simple "hello" is enough, while others share meals or lend each other tools or ingredients. But for scientists at the John Innes Centre and the University of Bristol, we should all consider behaving like plants when growing in hostile conditions.

The researchers wondered how plants managed to live side by side in dark places -- a bit like city dwellers crammed into the same yard during lockdown. When they lack light, plants tend to elongate to outgrow their neighbors. However, this strategy is not very effective in very dark environments. In fact, it would be a considerable waste of energy and detrimental to the survival of the species.

Helping each other out

In research recently published in the journal PNAS, scientists explain that plants change the expression of genes in certain parts of their circadian clock (or biological clock) when they are immersed in deep shade. This change interrupts the process of stem elongation, and prevents plants from trying to outgrow their neighbors in search of light.

Professor Antony Dodd of the John Innes Centre said: "The biological clock of plants is a key regulator of their development and fitness. This work sheds new light on a new role for circadian rhythms in adapting plants to competition with other plants in their environments."

And while plants rely on mutual aid between neighbors to survive in challenging environments, neighborly behavior is also widespread in many societies. In a recent report from INED, the French Institute for Demographic Studies, about relationships between neighbors, demographers used studies conducted in 1983 and 2018 as references for comparison. They found that neighborly habits appeared to have remained surprisingly stable. In fact, three out of four French people visit their neighbor or help them out with small services.

Caroline Drzewinski

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