Many Plant Species Live Underground For Up To 20 Years, Study Finds

Posted: Apr 22 2018, 5:25am CDT | by , Updated: Apr 22 2018, 5:56am CDT , in Latest Science News


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Many Plant Species Live Underground for Up to 20 Years, Study Finds
A lady's slipper orchid (Cypripedium calceolus) in Estonia. Credit: Richard Shefferson

The extraordinary behavior called dormancy allows them to survive through difficult times

An international team of researchers has found that at least 114 plant species from 24 different families are capable of living dormant under the soil for many years. This unique behavior is reminiscent of the fictional character Rip Van Winkle, who falls asleep for 20 years.

The plants in dormant state hide underground, abandon photosynthesis and instead live as parasites, exploiting their fungal hosts for nutrients. Ceasing activities above surface allow plants to conserve energy which helps them survive through difficult times.

Dormancy is common among insects and animals but the phenomenon within plants is far less well-known and understood. The study, led by University of Tokyo researchers, is the first to analyze the causes and evolutionary significance of prolonged dormancy in adult plants.

"It would seem to be paradoxical that plants would evolve this behavior because being underground means they cannot photosynthesis, flower or reproduce. And yet this study has shown that many plants in a large number of species frequently exhibit prolonged dormancy. Many of these species have found ways to overcome the loss of opportunities for photosynthesis during dormancy, especially by evolving mechanisms enabling them to obtain carbohydrates and nutrients from soil-based fungal associates. This allows them to survive and even thrive during dormant periods.” Co-author Prof Michael Hutchings, Emeritus Professor at the University of Sussex said.

The new study also reveals some of the conditions under which dormancy is triggered and the evolutionary benefits a plant can have with this behavior. After analyzing a large number of datasets, researchers have found that the reasons for plant dormancy differ between species and even vary within two plants of same species in different geographical locations. The reasons may include the risk that buds and new leaves will be eaten by herbivores, poor growing seasons and the increasingly warming world. Furthermore, dormancy was found to be more prevalent in lower altitudes where plants are under pressure from a variety of factors. For instance, if plants remain dormant and sprout after fire, it will provide them more favorable conditions to flourish and grow.

"Phylogenetic analyses also revealed that dormancy has evolved and persisted numerous times throughout the evolutionary history of the land plants,” said Professor Hutchings. “This suggests that not only that it has proved beneficial under many different ecological circumstances, but also that its evolution may be achievable through the occurrence of a small number of mutations at only a few genetic loci.”

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<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/47" rel="author">Hira Bashir</a>
The latest discoveries in science are the passion of Hira Bashir (). With years of experience, she is able to spot the most interesting new achievements of scientists around the world and cover them in easy to understand reporting.




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