We’ve also experienced the pain of our circadian rhythm pounding to a different drum than usual—perhaps after a particularly late night or a flight that landed us in a different time zone. And we all know that being back on board with our resting, dining, and even peeing schedules takes some time.
The Plants, like humans, have an internal clock. According to a new study by British and Belgian researchers, knowing their rhythms could make our food systems more resilient and efficient in the long run. Rethinking the way agriculture works is utterly critical for a prosperous and hunger-free environment as our environment changes, our population increases, and more resilient and sustainable food is needed.
The authors argue that now is the time to step up research into turning what we already know about plants’ circadian rhythms into a quick, inexpensive, and easy way to increase yield and foster biodiversity on farms around the world.
According to research, the expression of approximately 30% of a plant’s genes is regulated by its cellular clocks. That means the more we learn about their internal schedules, the more likely we are to be able to use them to increase the food yields, reduce the pesticide use, and work out how to make those crops more climate-sensitive.
The circadian clock of a plant and how it functions
According to lead author and the University of Cambridge plant biologist Alex Webb, the majority of the calibration for a human’s circadian rhythm occurs in the thousands of cells in our brains.
On the other hand, the plants don’t have a brain because each of their cells has its own clock that regulates when stomata open to take in carbon dioxide, when the photosynthesis machinery ramps up, and when the photosynthesis machinery shuts down after the sun sets.
And when exposed to a light source all day, every day, scientists have observed how plants switch their leaves in a 24-hour period dating back to the 1700s. “That was the first demonstration of it being a free-running clock in any organism,” Webb says.
The Researchers may also use techniques like delayed fluorescence imaging to learn about the internal clocks of just about every plant, even crops like wheat, to determine how long a circadian rhythm period lasts.
More and more research has been conducted in the recent decades to see how a plant’s circadian cycle influences aspects like its size, photosynthesis, and sugar production and use. All of this and coping with cold weather and rodents boils down to a handful of genes shared by all the significant flora.
We were already re-engineering plants’ circadian patterns in certain situations until we really realized what was going on with them.
The Farmers in North America, for example, may have unintentionally raised tomatoes with a somewhat weaker circadian rhythm than tomatoes from their native South America. So, with the advances of technology, if agriculture is able to find out that much from sheer trial and error, there’s a lot of room to take advantage of those internal clocks today.
the Webb notes, “The last 25 years in this area have been about basic biology—and we’re now at the point where we understand the biology in the big crops.”
When it comes to sustainability, this is where it all comes together.
Although humans have a pretty good idea of their sleep patterns, plants have a more challenging time figuring that out. When we go to water those specimens, whether it’s your snake plant on your desk or a farm full of wheat fields, it’s always more about what fits for us than what our plants actually need and want.
Hannah Rees, a circadian biology researcher at the Earlham Institute in England, says, “Knowing what processes are under regulation in the plant would have a huge effect on whether farmers perform specific applications on their crops.”
In a study published in 2019, Anthony Dodd, a plant biologist at the John Innes Centre, and his co-authors discovered that Arabidopsis thaliana plants are more sensitive to herbicide in the morning when applied in accordance with their circadian rhythm, implying that a little can go a long way during that time period.
“We felt that by learning how the clock impacts plant responses, we would be able to minimize the number of chemicals sprayed on them,” Dodd says, adding that this might save farmers money and time. “It will also cut down on the number of toxins released into the environment.”
When you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. Applying a herbicide in the morning while the plant is still gearing up to defend itself against hungry morning pests at dawn may be much more effective than using it at night when the same problems might not be as prevalent.
In theory, Webb adds, researchers might conduct similar research on almost any crop and its requirements—water, fertilizer, and so on—to determine just how much of each to apply. And in a world where agriculture consumes 70% of fresh water and the overuse of fertilizers and pesticides creates significant environmental damage, reducing the use of those services may be critical for raising sustainability.
Vertical farming is also making it easier for farmers to control when, where, and how much transition to impose on crop conditions, according to Webb. Understanding the difference of plants’ circadian rhythms could help them thrive in varying altitudes, temperatures, and environments; similar to how we unintentionally bred for tomatoes with slower clocks, Indoor facilities that produce higher yields and less waste are also available.
Before we would tell how much of an effect circadian cycles can have on agriculture, there is already a lot of testing to be done. However, in a world where ecological technologies and thinking are spreading from individuals to businesses, there’s much to be said about a strategy that simply follows the natural order of the life we want to evolve. It would just take a shift of our own clocks to make this happen.