Plant Sensory Systems and Responses

Defense Responses against Herbivores and Pathogens

Plants face two types of enemies: herbivores and pathogens. Herbivores both large and small use plants as food, and actively chew them. Pathogens are agents of disease. These infectious microorganisms, such as fungi, bacteria, and nematodes, live off of the plant and damage its tissues. Plants have developed a variety of strategies to discourage or kill attackers.

The first line of defense in plants is an intact and impenetrable barrier. Bark and the waxy cuticle can protect against predators. Other adaptations against herbivory include thorns, which are modified branches, and spines, which are modified leaves. They discourage animals by causing physical damage and inducing rashes and allergic reactions. A plant’s exterior protection can be compromised by mechanical damage, which may provide an entry point for pathogens. If the first line of defense is breached, the plant must resort to a different set of defense mechanisms, such as toxins and enzymes.

Secondary metabolites are compounds that are not directly derived from photosynthesis and are not necessary for respiration or plant growth and development. Many metabolites are toxic, and can even be lethal to animals that ingest them. Some metabolites are alkaloids, which discourage predators with noxious odors (such as the volatile oils of mint and sage) or repellent tastes (like the bitterness of quinine). Other alkaloids affect herbivores by causing either excessive stimulation (caffeine is one example) or the lethargy associated with opioids. Some compounds become toxic after ingestion. For instance, glycol cyanide in the cassava root releases cyanide only upon ingestion; the nearly 500 million humans who rely on cassava for nutrition must be certain to process the root properly before eating.

Mechanical wounding and predator attacks activate defense and protection mechanisms both in the damaged tissue and at sites farther from the injury location. Some defense reactions occur within minutes: others over several hours. The infected and surrounding cells may die, thereby stopping the spread of infection.

Long-distance signaling elicits a systemic response aimed at deterring the predator. As tissue is damaged, jasmonates may promote the synthesis of compounds that are toxic to predators. Jasmonates also elicit the synthesis of volatile compounds that attract parasitoids, which are insects that spend their developing stages in or on another insect, and eventually kill their host. The plant may activate abscission of injured tissue if it is damaged beyond repair.