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Plants and People: More in Common Than Horror Movies

3 mins

Nature found it convenient to equip plants and mammals with some of the same defenses. Heartening news—and more proof that plant-vs-human horror movies are home-wreckers. Looks like you owe your Philodendron an apology.

Table of Contents

1951. Was that ever a lousy year for Plant-Human relations! Of course we all remember the classic '51 sci-fi film Day of the Triffids, in which angry, carnivorous plants roam a post-apocalyptic Earth, spitting poison and being generally unpleasant.

The Plant Kingdom took a helluva huge PR hit thanks to that little sci-fi outing. But it's time we set the record straight. Here goes: very generally speaking, plants will not chase and eat you. If you're an amazonian tree frog and have the bad luck to fall into a pitcher plant, yeah -- you will be slowly devoured. But that's on you. 

In fact, we have some odd commonalities with plants that explain why plant-based nutrition and functional foods work as well as they do.

So, let's set the Triffids aside for a moment; they were only brought onstage to get your attention, to be honest..

Think instead of a plant you actually adore, basking in its little terra cotta pot on a sun-drenched windowsill. There. Better? We hope so. Because it’s been discovered that you and that potted plant have something in common. What could it be? Posture? Turgidity? A greenish complexion? Nope.

Plant and Human Immune Systems are Weirdly Alike 

The plant immune response and the human immune response proteins are identical cousins. Don’t get all excited; we can explain. At the Scripps Institute they discovered that plants and humans share a certain quality in their immune systems.

It seems the pathogen-recognizing Nod-Like Receptor family of proteins in humans (NLR proteins) are switched on by the same SGT1 protein that activates the disease-hunting Resistance (or simply R) protein in plants. 

This is an overlap between the plant and animal kingdoms that surprised the h*ll out of researchers when they discovered it. 

Plant Proteins and Animal Proteins: Joined at the Hip

Perhaps more intriguingly, while scientists have long been fascinated by the structural similarity between the human NLR and the plant kingdom’s R disease-battling proteins, it had previously seemed too far-fetched to imagine that these plant and human proteins actually played the same role in slapping down bacteria.

These plant and human proteins are, in a sense, twin knights of different kingdoms—the plant and animal kingdoms.

What’s more, the scientists have also concluded that these long-separated bacteria-bashers are highly conserved from an evolutionary standpoint, which is to say, while many Darwinian changes transpired over the eons in the micro-guts of plants and animals, these twin proteins remained largely unchanged through time—putting them in the cozy middle-lane of Natural Selection’s survivability freeway. 

Yes, it’s time to hug your Philodendron. Like you mean it. Does this discovery suggest that plants and humans are descended from a common ancestor? 

Actually, no.

Plants and Animals: Related through Limitations

Yeah, there is a surprisingly robust genetic intersection between plants and mammals, but this common human/plant pathogen-fighting doesn’t signal our all having once been Triffids. In fact, one of the study’s scientists went ahead and threw cold water on any mystical plant/human conviviality this discovery might inspire.

It turns out that, no matter how small and weird the mechanics, we’re still talking about the limits of machinery—the scientist basically asserting that these feisty protein structures exist in both humans and plants because…well, they do the same thing in pretty much the same way.

Mother Nature Gets Tired, Too

Even in the quasi-magical realm of microbiology, there are only so many ways to put your pants on. Even Mother Nature can weary of conjuring wondrous complexity, the old dear. In this case she tossed the same disease-fighting stuff into both plants and animals; probably at the end of a very, very long day. Who can’t relate to that?


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