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Study Suggests Plants Can Do Math, Vegetarians Left in Moral Quandary

I don't like eating things that are intelligent, so now I have no idea what to do.


Plants might be smarter than we thought, especially because we thought they were just dumb plants. New research shows that plants use arithmetic division to calculate the rate at which to use up starch at night. They time their consumption to prevent starving when there’s no sunlight, and they run out of starch right before the dawn. They don’t even use a calculator.

Scientists at the John Innes Centre showed that plants make precise adjustments to the rate at which they consume starch, and to do that they must be calculating how much starch to use over time. Their findings are to be published in the upcoming edition of the journal eLife.

Plants timing the rate at which they use starch is important because, as Professor Martin Howard of the John Innes Centre said, “If the starch store is used too fast, plants will starve and stop growing during the night. If the store is used too slowly, some of it will be wasted.”

It’s not clear exactly how plants do this. The current hypothesis is that the information needed is coded in two types of molecules. One molecule is called S for the starch value, and the other is T for time. The amount of starch stored in the plant is divided by the time left before dawn to get the necessary rate of consumption. There are human beings who can’t do that math.

Besides making me question the ethics of eating something that can handle doing math, the information from the study could help farmers better understand how plants grow at night. That could mean higher crop yields, which means more food to be conflicted about eating.

It will probably be some time before the data is applied to modern farming techniques, but in the meantime maybe we can test the results in Farming Simulator.

(via Phys Org, image via Mahmut)

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Glen is a comedian, writer, husband, and father. He won his third-grade science fair and is a former preschool science teacher, which is a real job.