Environment Keep your green thumbs to yourself

Keep your green thumbs to yourself

Hugging a tree may be comforting for us – but it seems it might leave the trees cold.

Researchers at La Trobe University have discovered plants are highly sensitive to touch – and not in a good way.

Research Director Jim Whelan says the team’s work shows repeated touching can actually impede a plant’s growth.

“The lightest touch from a human, animal, insect, or even plants touching each other in the wind, triggers a huge gene response in the plant,” Professor Whelan says.

“Within 30 minutes of being touched, 10 per cent of the plant’s genome is altered.

“This involves a huge expenditure of energy which is taken away from plant growth. If the touching is repeated, then plant growth is reduced by up to 30 per cent.”

The findings could help develop new ways of maximising plant growth, with applications in agriculture and conservation.

Co-researcher Yan Wang says the findings are surprising and the reasons for them aren’t clear.

“We know that when an insect lands on a plant, genes are activated preparing the plant to defend itself against being eaten,” Dr Yang says.

“However, insects are also beneficial, so how do plants distinguish between friend and foe?”

The next step in research will be to identify and breed plant varieties less sensitive to touch but still able to respond to other factors such as cold and heat.

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