How Plants Defend Themselves: They Can’t Run or Fight, But They Still Pack a Punch

April 16, 1998

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AMHERST, Mass. - The National Academy of Sciences has chosen the University of Massachusetts to host a series of talks at which scientists will explore how plants protect themselves. With no immune system and no ability to run from predators, plants appear to be easy marks for diseases and insects. But a panel of four plant scientists will discuss the ingenious strategies plants have evolved to cope with these stresses on Sat., May 2 at 1 p.m. in Thompson Hall, room 104. The symposium is free and open to the public, and is geared not to specialists but to people with a working knowledge of biology.

"Plants are rooted, quite literally, to one spot, so they can’t run away," points out UMass biology professor Bernard Rubinstein, who is helping coordinate the event. "As a result, many plants protect themselves by producing chemicals with astonishing properties." One chemical, for example, is almost identical to aspirin. We swallow aspirin to cure our headaches, but the plant makes its own, which then causes the production of still other substances that poison the invader, according to Rubinstein. Another chemical appears when an insect is eating a plant’s leaves. This chemical is a gas that attracts natural predators of the insect, Rubinstein says. Both defense mechanisms will be the subject of talks. Other talks will deal with protection against virus infections and pathogens that attack both plants and animals, Rubinstein said.

The presentations will be moderated by Hans Kende of Michigan State University. The speakers will be UMass professor Anne Simon; Harvard Medical School professor Frederick M. Ausubel; Rutgers University professor Ilya Raskin; and Michigan State University professor Gregg A. Howe.

In a separate event, the Northeast section of the American Society of Plant Physiologists will convene at the University on May 1-2, ending its meeting just before the National Academy talks begin. Approximately 150 scientists from throughout the region will attend research presentations. For the first time, 20 high school, middle school, and community college biology teachers from the area will join the researchers. The teachers will also view short presentations of experiments adaptable to high school classrooms. Mary Musgrave of Louisiana State University will explain how more than 200,000 high school students were able to learn from experiments conducted on a recent space shuttle flight. She will also screen a video showing pollination in outer space.