Altruistic Corn

Dmitri Dergun
29th April 2013

Research led by the University of Colorado Boulder seems to show that there are mechanisms in corn reproduction that favour seeds with homogeneous parentage: each seed consists originally of two components, an embryonic corn plant and an endosperm which contains nutrients used in the growth of the embryonic plant. It is possible for these two components to have genetically different 'parents', and the research found that plants whose two components had identical parents grew better than plants where the parentage was different.

CU-Boulder Professor Pamela Diggle says:

"It is fairly clear from previous research that plants can preferentially withhold nutrients from inferior offspring when resources are limited. Our study is the first to specifically test the idea of cooperation among siblings in plants."

"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. 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."

William "Ned" Friedman, a professor at Harvard University who helped conduct research on the project while a faculty member at CU-Boulder, said:

"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. 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."

These reports of the results use words like 'mother', 'father', 'cooperation', and 'altruism', which seems anthropomorphic, or whatever the equivalent word would be for the attribution of animal characteristics to vegetables. (Think screaming cabbages!) So let's be clear: this is a chemical mechanism which gives nutritional preference to more closely related organisms. It's a stretch to call it altruism or cooperation; but it does show that evolution favours kinship.

Altruism is most often thought of as a 'groupish' characteristic, ie it evolves to favour cooperation between members of a group, along with empathy and other characteristics of advanced forms of animal species, and it is characterized as a cognitive process.

A zoological definition goes: 'instinctive behavior that is detrimental to the individual but favors the survival or spread of that individual's genes, as by benefiting its relatives'.

No-one is going to credit ears of corn with cognitive abilities, and even the word 'instinct' seems inappropriate; yet it seems that we may need to broaden our understanding of altruism if it can be delivered chemically. On the other hand, everyone is happy to accept the idea that evolution can function as well for corn as for sentient creatures. Perhaps then the reality is that groupishness, or altruism or cooperation or what you will, is something that emerges among all life forms and has bio-chemical underpinnings.



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