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Plants, Like Kids, Can Do "Maths"


Our son Jacob, a recent kindergarten graduate, surprised our family over the weekend by suddenly revealing he can do simple math problems in his head without resorting to fingers or toes. You know, some light addition. We were impressed, though you might not be. Admittedly we're biased. My wife even cried.

More objectively impressive is the ability of plants to do math -- or "maths," as those eccentric Brits say in a BBC report -- and not just addition but division:

UK scientists say they were “amazed” to find an example of such a sophisticated arithmetic calculation in biology.

Mathematical models show that the amount of starch consumed overnight is calculated by division in a process involving leaf chemicals, a John Innes Centre team reports in e-Life journal.

Birds may use similar methods to preserve fat levels during migration.
The scientists studied the plant Arabidopsis, which is regarded as a model plant for experiments.

Overnight, when the plant cannot use energy from sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into sugars and starch, it must regulate its starch reserves to ensure they last until dawn.

Experiments by scientists at the John Innes Centre, Norwich, show that to adjust its starch consumption so precisely, the plant must be performing a mathematical calculation -- arithmetic division.

“They’re actually doing maths in a simple, chemical way -- that’s amazing, it astonished us as scientists to see that,” study leader Prof Alison Smith told BBC News.

Another researcher comments:

"This is the first concrete example in biology of such a sophisticated arithmetic calculation," said mathematical modeller Prof Martin Howard, of the John Innes Centre.

The article points out that of course the plants aren't doing this purposefully or consciously. They seem, instead, to be designed to do so. No word as to whether the UK scientists cried on learning this.

Image credit: Anther of thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), fluorescence micrograph/Wikicommons.