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Scientists Discover That Plant Roots ‘Pulsate’… But Why?

Artistic depiction of a scientist studying plants

Scientists have discovered that plant roots “pulsate.” Researchers now know this oscillation is related to the growth of roots but they don’t know why. Unlocking this mystery could change the way things are grown.

Scientists Discover Plant Roots “Pulsate”

Imagine if science could uncover the mechanisms of how plants grow. If so, such knowledge could revolutionize food production. Scientists and farmers could develop the best plants for different soil types and climates.

We often take plants for granted, but the relationship between humankind and plant life is more important than ever. As we face climate change, with increasingly extreme weather leading to droughts and floods, crops are being damaged worldwide. With these rising challenges, knowledge of how plants grow could be vital in ensuring the world’s food production doesn’t suffer. One major natural disaster that affects a large part of the world’s food belt is all it might take to lead to famine. 

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Game-Changing Discovery

Despite all our modern knowledge and technology, year after year, science still makes discoveries that unlock more secrets that nature has kept hidden.

About fifteen years ago, scientists first discovered that genes at the root tip of plants seem to “pulsate.” More precisely, the pulsation is coming from the level of proteins produced by some genes.

Scientists were able to determine that this oscillation from plants is a basic mechanism that underlies the growth of roots. However, the rest of the process remained a bit of a mystery.

Recent research into this process is giving researchers new insight that is bringing scientists one step closer to unlocking the key to the mysterious mechanics of how plants grow.


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Oscillations are Natural Occurrences in Living Things

Scientists understand that nature is full of plenty of examples of cell processes that exhibit regular oscillations.

These natural cycles of spontaneous oscillations in nature can be fast or slow. Fast examples are heartbeats and the mitotic cell cycle. Slow examples are hibernation and the menstrual cycle.

Probably the most well-known example is that of circadian rhythms. These are part of a natural internal clock that exists in animals and humans, as well as in plants. It’s even present in fungi and cyanobacteria. This natural oscillation repeats roughly every 24 hours.

One of the most important takeaways is that many of these natural cycles also have an underlying negative feedback loop. This refers to a process that triggers a series of events which then represses the same activity it triggered. Scientists have discovered this appears to be the case with root growth pulsation.

After discovering root tip gene oscillation, scientists also noticed the pulsation left an invisible mark. This was discovered using fluorescent markers visible under a microscope. At the locations where the marks were left, scientists learned the root can grow sideways. This suggests that such marks provide regular cues and these lead to the root system taking its shape.

However, scientists still do not know how many feedback loops might be involved. Nor do they know the specific cause for these oscillations. However, they have ruled out that it is driven by circadian oscillations.

How Much Have Scientists Learned about the Mechanism of Plant Growth?

Scientists have been able to discover a specific hormone in plants that appears to be crucial to the growth process. They’ve identified it as auxin. Interestingly, Charles Darwin first hypothesized the existence of a hormone such as auxin. Around 100 years ago, the chemical structure of auxin was confirmed.

Struggling to Crack the Code

Researchers are also using mathematics in addition to studying the problem from a cellular perspective. In particular, a branch of mathematics developed in the 19th century called Dynamical Systems Theory (DST). Using DST tools, scientists have gained some clarity regarding why the roots of plants oscillate. They also use math to decipher how auxin patterns are affected by rounds of cell divisions.

So far, some research suggests root tip gene oscillation may be linked to root growth. However, it doesn’t happen at the same time that root stem cells are dividing.


If this research has shown scientists anything, it’s that plants are far more complex than we might imagine. This complexity shows that they are more like us in many ways.

Much of the reactions that plants have come in response to external signals. For example, changes in light, temperature, or the availability of nutrients. Many of these reactions are an integral part of a plant’s development cycle, which is encoded in its genes.

Ultimately, the mystery of the specifics of plant growth remains an enigma. However, scientists are gaining ground as they identify the key components. The answer is to be found in uncovering the rules that dictate the interplay between the various processes.