Professor Nick Smirnoff.

Exeter scientists illustrate plant communication in landmark BBC series

The University of Exeter has contributed to a new BBC Two series, by conducting an experiment that visualises communication between plants.

The first programme of the three-part series How to Grow a Planet is broadcast on BBC Two at 9pm on Tuesday 7 February.

The experiment was conducted specially for the BBC2 programme by a University of Exeter team, led by Professor Nick Smirnoff. It was filmed in the University’s state-of-the-art Biosciences laboratories in the Geoffrey Pope building, which has just undergone a £25 million refurbishment.

During the experiment, Professor Smirnoff and his team were able to visualise a widely-used experimental plant Arabidopsis responding to neighbouring plants that had been wounded. This response, in which the wounded plants release a gas that triggers wound responses, is already well-known. However, by introducing a firefly gene responsive to the wound-induced gases, the team were able to visualise this response using a sensitive photon counting camera.  

The scientists know that a mix of chemicals is being emitted by the wounded plants, but they don’t know which the active ingredient is or why it is happening, although the suspicion is that it is part of some kind of defence mechanism.

Professor Nick Smirnoff of the University of Exeter, the plant biochemist overseeing the work, said: “We were pleased to be able to carry out this one-off experiment for the programme, and much more work is needed to uncover what is going on.

“Taking part in this series provides a great opportunity to showcase the world-class research we carry out here at Exeter. We hope the series will inspire people to consider the huge impact that plants have on almost every aspect of our lives.”

Presented by South West scientist Professor Iain Stewart of Plymouth University, How to Grow a Planet is a new three-part landmark science series made by BBC Scotland for BBC Two. It reveals how plants have been the driving force behind so many of the greatest changes on Earth – from the creation of the atmosphere to the evolution of almost all animal life and the emergence and development of human beings. In it, Iain Stewart journeys across deserts, forests and mountains to see some of the world’s most remarkable and stunning plants.

How to Grow a Planet is broadcast at 9pm on BBC2 on Tuesdays 7, 14 and 21 February.

Date: 6 February 2012