Sweet Potatoes Alert Their Buddies to Pest Attacks - Modern Farmer

Sweet Potatoes Alert Their Buddies to Pest Attacks

We know plants have defenses. But do they share?

A lovely sweet potato.
Photography by Mama_Mia on Shutterstock

We’re always here for a study of how plants dynamically adapt to changes in their environment.

Sometimes this is referred to (though not by scientists, really) as plant intelligence, but really we just love to find out more about all the amazing ways plants have of surviving. The added benefit is that learning more about plant survival tactics might help us survive new climate conditions. Recently, a group of researchers from around the world took a closer look at the sweet potato.

These researchers, from both the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology and National Taiwan University examined one very particular and very charming tactic of the sweet potato plant. When a sweet potato plant is attacked by, for example, a beetle or other insect pest, it lets loose with a barrage of protections. It emits what the researchers classify as a “bouquet of odors,” and also triggers the production of a particular protein in the parts of the plant that aren’t being attacked.

That protein, called sporamin, works to essentially erase the appetite of attacking pests, so the rest of the plant can remain safe. But here’s the thing: when one plant emits that bouquet of odors, neighboring plants sense it too, and trigger their own production of sporamin.

Interestingly, there’s apparently one specific chemical within that bouquet, called DMNT, that’s responsible for all of this signaling. The researchers say that it actually smells quite nice, like an herbal balm.

In any case, this is all really fun stuff, but it could turn out to be useful. The researchers found that one particular varietal of sweet potato was particularly sensitive to DMNT, and also produced a large quantity of it when attacked. This could, theoretically, lead to the creation of more naturally pest-resistant plants. You don’t have to spray with pesticides if a plant is bred to create its own.

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Carolynn Bergeron
4 years ago

What is the variety of sweet potato that releases a lot of DMNT?