The Loh Down On Science

What plants do all night will surprise you

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The popular laboratory plant Arabidopsis thaliana

Can plants do math?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science, saying maybe!

See, during the day, plants use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into sugars and starches.  At night, they use these to maintain life and growth.  But how do they pace their consumption so they don't run out before dawn?

Plant biologists in the U.K. have developed a model of the process.  It's like a math problem: amount of stored starch divided by the number of hours of darkness equals consumption rate.

The model seems to match what they're finding in the lab.  When they make the night artificially shorter or longer?  Each change triggers a different “calculation.”  Short night ahead?  Plants use starch more rapidly.  Long night ahead?  Use it more slowly.  

The plants aren’t really doing division of course . . . the key is likely a biological clock, which helps them estimate the time til dawn.  The biologists are calling it "molecular math."  

So that's what my daughter was doing last night when she fell asleep on her algebra book.  Molecular math!  Sure!

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The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, with 89.3 KPCC. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

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