How to Talk to Plants and Humans

I grew up on a farm, quite distanced from other young children to play with. So, I befriended the trees, and the corn, and the Black-eyed Susans. My mom always encouraged me to make more friends of my own species, but I felt more comfortable with plants than humans. They never judged, only observed me as I observed them. I didn’t understand my mom’s worries about my antisocial behavior until I grew older. As humans, we rely on interacting with each other, for we are social beings, and create communities to survive this chaotic reality. But, in order to thrive, we need to properly communicate. Human connection allows us to grow, and the same goes for plants, which have innumerable bio-chemical relations on a macro and micro scale which allow them to persist. I have always believed that plants talk to each other in their own secret language. If you’ve ever been alone in a forest, you will know what I mean. It’s hard to prove, however I know the feeling is quite real. However, scientists are now researching the biological, chemical, and genetic makeup of various plants to explore how different organism communicate. Verifying that sublime phenomena would prove to society that there are other forms of intelligence than our own, and possible allow others to befriend plants.

How can one quantifiably prove a phenomenon that seems so sublime? As a nonscientist, this question is beyond me, for I thrive in relativity. But for Jennifer McMahon, a biologist at Kenyon College, this predicament is an exciting puzzle for her to solve. I discovered her research about the signaling of plants and relationship between ethylene and cyanide, but was lost in the scientific jargon. This led me to enter my interview with an anxious disposition and a shaky understanding of what McMahon has spent her entire professional career studying. Needless to say, I was anxious.

I had never met McMahon before, which added to my nervousness, but as I entered her office, I was immediately comforted by the myriad of potted plants sunbathing in the window. They added a natural element to the sterile biology building and harsh fluorescent lights. My tension eased. Then I cut to the chase—I was no scientist and could not pretend that I understood her complicated research. I was no professional interviewer either, just a student who likes plants. I waited to be reprimanded for my lack of quantitative abilities, but McMahon seemed to ease herself, saying she had never been interviewed before, and was just a woman who likes plants too.

We smiled and started to chat.

McMahon told me she is fascinated by the language of plants, which she said was the language of hormones and genes. Specifically, she is concerned with how parts of a plant signal to each other and ultimately to other plants. The subject of her studies is the phytohormone ethylene and the single cyanide molecule produced as a byproduct of the hormone. As a defense mechanism, plant’s detect threats through their hormones, one of which is ethylene. A plant will sense a predator or environmental hazard and produce hormones in response, ultimately warning other parts of the plant and other organisms. Because cyanide is a byproduct of ethylene, it is also produced as a response to stress. In all the research about ethylene, the one molecule of cyanide went overlooked.

This prompted McMahon and her associates to conduct an experiment to understand how the genetic makeup of a plant responds to the input of cyanide. In her paper, “Molecular Control of Ethylene Production by Cyanide in Arabidopsis Thaliana”, McMahon introduced different levels of cyanide and timed how long the gene ACS6 takes to respond to the chemical. She used Arabidopsis thaliana, a small controlled plant commonly used in experiments. Because of its commonality, McMahon was able to study mutant pipe plants as well as wild ones to compare how they reacted to cyanide

Evidence from McMahon's Research

She found that the more cyanide is imputed, the faster ACS6 genes are triggered. ACS6 helps produce ethylene and this led McMahon and her associates to wonder whether there is a feedback loop where ACS6 helps produce ethylene, and in the process cyanide, which triggers the ACC gene to synthesize into ACS6 and ultimately produce more ethylene. As she explained this to me, she could tell I was lost, and she told me, “not everyone has to care about this paper, but I think people have to care about living in a world of communication and ignoring a whole level of communication.”

I told her I had a hard time understanding microbiology. In general terms, McMahon explained how cyanide is just as involved with stress communication as ethylene. She told me, “when a plant releases more cyanide, there are other things downstream of that the plant will release into the air”. Although her research on cyanide production in Arabidopsis thaliana researched signaling within one organism, McMahon believes it is one part of a process that is invisible to us. Although the lives of plants are complex, they are disregarded by our anthropocentric world for experiencing life in a different way than humans. “If we stop to really connect with something, that’s when we start to realize that perhaps we’re not the only ones perceiving things beyond a muscle reflex.” And although I do not study plants on a microbiological scale like McMahon and cannot prove it through the scientific process, I also believe that other organisms are thinking in ways we cannot comprehend.

After trying to wrap my head around the genes and hormones McMahon was explaining to me, we chatted about climate change and its role in plant signaling. The chemical language of plants allows them to share information about a changing environment. They create communities, not unlike our own, where they converse through gases, roots, and fungi in the soil that allow them to protect each other.

I don’t know how it came up, but McMahon and I started to gush about Richard Powers’s The Overstory, which wove the narrative of about seven characters around their shared experiences with trees. The structure and topic of the novel help portray a linked world, where humans form connections based on their changing environments, just like the trees. We agreed on the importance of listening to other organisms and trying to decipher their wisdom.

Although I was afraid to interview McMahon, I was pleasantly surprised with how wonderful our conversation was. Not only did she explain her research in a comprehensible way, but we shared how hopes and fears as two women who like plants and the environment. She gave me a few book recommendations and invited me to a guest lecture, which I ended up attending and enjoying. Going into it, I was expecting to make a fool out of myself to a real academic scientist. Instead, I came to the realization that although we see and examine the world in different ways, we are all human. I needed to have faith in humanity to accept me like I had faith in the trees when I was a child. All it took was a proper conversation to open my eyes to a whole new perspective.

McMahon said to me, “what we need to do more of is take a step back from the mix of the world where we’re just bumping into each other, and sit down and just watch something for a bit, and connect with something that’s not human, connect with something that, to some degree, keeps on existing whether we’re there or not, but to really acknowledge that there are other spaces for other living things on this planet besides just human beings.”

Written by Alexia Tiches


Smith, Jennifer McMahon, and Richard N. Arteca. “Molecular Control of Ethylene Production by Cyanide in Arabidopsis Thaliana.” Wiley Online Library, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 25 Dec. 2001, x.

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