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There is an astounding array of chemical activities taking place in plants.

A plant is a powerful thing. Self contained solar-powered factories, plants excel at creating a wide variety of chemicals and products based on their environmental needs.

They are also able to rapidly change production modes, switching between chemicals and compounds each aimed at tackling a specific problem at hand.

When many plants are attacked by a munching menace, for example, they quickly begin creating and releasing clouds of unique chemicals into the air.

These can be intended to harm or disrupt the pest, alert other far-flung parts of themselves (and other plants) to the impending danger, or even attract local predators like wasps to move in and take care of the browsers themselves.

Most plants are also capable of rapid growth, rejuvenating wounds that would take down most other organisms and toughening the spot with nigh-impenetrable bark.

These feats are largely triggered by environmental conditions, which alert the plant to begin transforming pliable stem cells into roots, reproductive parts, and so on.

Plants don’t only use stem cells for this work. Researchers have found that along with stem cells, which are easily ‘programmed’ to perform a wide variety of tasks, plants readily reprogram specialized cells, reorganizing their assembly lines into different forms as the need arises.

It appears that by introducing specific elements into their cells, plants are able to regulate which genes are expressed from their DNA at any given time. Science has taken note of this ability for plants to adapt to change at a cellular level. In fact, a large amount of research is currently being carried out to try and engineer plants to do our bidding.

For years, scientists have had relatively heavy-handed success in directly modifying the genes of certain plants.

Through their efforts, we now have a wide variety of crops resistant to certain herbicides. Scientists have also aimed their sights at improving the taste of other plant products.

Recent studies identified a way to make tomatoes sweeter, for example, paving the way for their long-overdue inclusion into a fruit salad.

Some of this work has also been geared towards saving imperiled species. The American chestnut, which has been mostly wiped from our forests due to a fungal blight, has been a subject of heated debate and research in this manner. 

Through combining American chestnuts with genes from Chinese chestnuts and other plants, several new species have been created that have admirable resistance to chestnut blight.

While the effects that these and other laboratory creations will have on their surrounding environments are still largely unknown, some opponents believe that the ethical issues involved in creating a new species are beyond most humans’ pay grade.

No matter what side of the issue you fall on, it’s clear that genetic engineering should be performed with adequate respect and foresight, lest our creations wreak havoc on the very world we are attempting to improve.

While genetic engineering performed by humans is a burgeoning field, we have arrived very late onto the scene.

In fact, there are a wide range of organisms that are able to modify the cells of plants around them to suit their needs. We are all mostly familiar with a virus’ ability to reprogram our own cells. Plants constantly deal with similar threats, however these changes are not all bad. It is now believed that early plants may have developed robust root systems through their interactions with (and subsequent changes to their cells by) fungi and ancient pathogens.

These semi-symbiotic relationships still happen today, and in many ways plants depend on the microbes around them to help advise, or force, them to change themselves as needed.

Brannen Basham and his wife, Jill Jacobs, operate Spriggly’s Beescaping, a business dedicated to the preservation of pollinators. He can be reached at brannen.basham@gmail.com.