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New Study Finds that Plants Can Be Altruistic – or Jerks

Update Date: Feb 01, 2013 01:50 PM EST

Just like humans can be self-sacrificing or self-serving, so too can animals. After all, we've all seen videos of dolphins pushing injured friends to the surface of the water so that they can breathe, and clips of cats pushing lamps off the surface of the table so that they can crash. However, did you know that plants can also be altruistic - or not so altruistic? Researchers from the University of Colorado-Boulder believe that they have proved just that.

The researchers performed the study on corn. Sitting on top of the stalks of corn are two male flowers, which send down pollen grains two at a time through tubes to tiny cobs on the stalks of corn. Those cobs are covered with strands called silks. When the pollen grains come into contact with the silk, they produce a seed which becomes the embryo and will later become a single kernel of corn and an endosperm, the embryo's sibling.

"One of the most fundamental laws of nature is that if you are going to be an altruist, give it up to your closest relatives," Harvard professor and co-author of the study William Friedman said in a statement. "Altruism only evolves if the benefactor is a close relative of the beneficiary. When the endosperm gives all of its food to the embryo and then dies, it doesn't get more altruistic than that."

Most of the time, the embryo and the endosperm have the same mother and father. However, some of the time, the embryo and endosperm have different fathers. In those cases, the endosperm will often withhold food from the embryo.

"The results indicated embryos with the same mother and father as the endosperm in their seed weighed significantly more than embryos with the same mother but a different father," Pamela Diggle, a professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder, said in a statement. "We found that endosperm that does not share the same father as the embryo does not hand over as much food -- it appears to be acting less cooperatively."

The study was published in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Previous research has found that plants can communicate and cry for help.

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