As people often take calculated risks when facing significant life changes, researchers found that pea plants also make choices about how to grow and when based on an assessment of risk. The findings were published on Thursday in the Cell Press journal Current Biology.
The team analyzed the decisions the pea plants made when presented in different environments with different nutrient levels. Plants showed an unknown ability to take calculated risks to secure the maximum amounts of nutrients, as reported by Christian Science Monitor.
“To our knowledge, this is the first demonstration of an adaptive response to risk in an organism without a nervous system,” commented Alex Kacelnik of Oxford University in the United Kingdom.
For the study, the team grew pea plants with their roots split between two pots, each pot with different amounts of nutrients within the ground. The plants were faced with the decision about how much effort they allocate to growing in each one, according to a press release on EurekAlert.
During the first experiment, researchers found that the plants grew more roots in the pot with more nutrients like animals often spend more time foraging in food-rich areas. After that, the team split the roots of each plant between two pots then offered the same nutrient levels on average, but one offered a constant level of nutrients while in the other they varied over time.
The question was whether the plants would choose to grow more roots in one pot or the other. Based on theoretical analyses from the team of how decision makers, such as humans or animals, would respond in a similar scenario. The team predicted that the plants might prefer the most variable pot, accepting more risk, when the average nutrient level was low.
The decision-making process was compared with a similar scenario in humans, but instead of nutrients, the team introduced money. The choice that the plants had to make were equivalent to a person choosing to take $800 or to toss a coin for a 50 percent chance of winning $1,000 and the other chance to earn nothing.
Most people, according to the team, would realize that the first option would pay more on average, and would prefer it if there are no other restrictions, Kacelnik stated in the press release.
When the average nutrient was high, researchers predicted that the plants would choose just the opposite due to there would be no reason to accept the risk associated with a more unpredictable environment.