Can plants make important life decisions? A new study by U.K. scientists suggests they can, showing that plants have cells that function like a “brain” to help them decide when to germinate.

The scientists found that special cells in the root tip of a dormant seed can assess environmental conditions, such as temperature, to judge the right time to start growing.

If a plant germinates too soon, while the weather is too cold, it won’t survive. And if it leaves it too late, other plants will have a headstart and might out-compete it.

“Plants are just like humans in the sense that they have to think and make decisions the same way we do,” study co-author professor George Bassel of Birmingham University told Live Science.

They studied a plant called Arabidopsis, or thale cress, and found two types of cells that form the “decision-making center” – one that encourages seed dormancy and one that encourages germination. The two cell types communicate with each other via hormones, which is a similar mechanism to how human brains operate when we decide whether or not to move.

Further experiments and mathematical modeling showed the cells were linked with the plant’s sensitivity to the environment, and that it was fluctuations in temperature that triggered germination.

This is a 3-D digital reconstruction of a plant embryo, showing location of decision-making components, on a mathematically-modelled background. (University of Birmingham)

“Our work reveals a crucial separation between the components within a plant decision-making centre. In the human brain, this separation is thought to introduce a time delay, smoothing out noisy signals from the environment and increasing the accuracy with which we make decisions. The separation of these parts in the seed ‘brain’ also appears to be central to how it functions,” said Bassel.

“There is now potential to apply this knowledge to commercial plants in order to enhance and synchronise germination, increasing crop yields and decreasing herbicide use.”

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