Israeli scientists have uncovered messages transmitted underground – not by enemy agents, but by garden pea plants.
The Ben-Gurion University team discovered that plants can transmit distress signals to each other through their roots. An injured plant “communicates” to a healthy one, which in turn relays the signal to neighboring plants, possibly enhancing the other plants’ ability to deal with stress in the future, according to the study, recently published in the periodical PLoS (Public Library of Science One ).
The researchers, headed by plant biologist Ariel Novoplansky of the Mitrani Department of Desert Ecology, exposed five garden pea plants to drought conditions. They found that the stressed plant closes its leaves to prevent water loss. Meanwhile its roots release signals that caused neighboring plants, which were not exposed to drought conditions, to react as if they had been. The study, “Rumor Has It …: Relay Communication of Stress Cues in Plants,” shows the unstressed plants transmitted the information on to other healthy plants.
Preliminary results indicate that plants that receive the distress signals will survive better if exposed to drought at a later stage in their life.
“The results demonstrate the ability of plants and other ‘simple’ organisms to learn, remember and respond to environmental challenges in ways so far known in complex creatures with a central nervous system,” says Novoplansky of the Blaustein Institute for Desert Research.
In some cases the immediate response helps healthy plants to deal with distress that has not yet affected them directly, he says.
Communication among plants has been the focus of study for decades. In 1983 Jack Schultz and Ian Baldwin concluded in an essay published in Science that injured poplar and maple trees release chemical signals that are picked up by healthy neighboring trees. The latter then activate defense mechanisms as though they themselves were hurt. The two scientists were roundly criticized at the time by the scientific community for what later became known as the “talking trees” notion.
In 1988 Dutch scientists showed that plants attacked by insects release chemical substances that summon help from other insects, who prey on the plant-eating ones. Certain plants activate a chemical alert when they are bitten by caterpillars, for example, attracting caterpillar-eating wasps to the endangered plant.
Today scientists accept that this communication also takes place among the plants themselves, as Baldwin and Schultz discovered.
Novoplansky and his team found that the distress signals are passed on not only from the injured plant to the adjacent healthy one, but also from the healthy one to its neighbors, which transmit it onwards, all through the plants’ roots. Previous studies have shown that plants communicate through their leaves or stems, but the Israeli team revealed “underground” communication through roots.
Novoplansky believes the signals released by plants are generic and capable of passing from one plant species to another.
“We had an accident in which one plant got into an experiment of another species, and responded to its neighbors the same way the others did. It seemed as though the signals were understood by different plants, as though they were speaking Esperanto to each other. But at this stage this is a hypothesis and we are conducting other experiments to check it,” says Novoplansky.
The BGU researcher is also studying why plants developed defense mechanisms that apparently help others that compete with them over limited resources.
“There are cases in which a plant would have clear motivation to inform its neighbors. We expect such mechanisms to work especially in a large plant, where it is likely the neighboring plants’ roots belong to the same large plant,” he says.
“The communication has an advantage that balances the competitive cost of transmitting the information to rival plants,” he says.
Novoplansky, whose team included Dr. Omer Falik and other scientists, said that underground communication probably takes place in many plant species. “But we still don’t know what the communication mechanism is exactly and are focusing efforts to decode it, together with other scientists in Israel and the world,” he says.
Bar-Ilan University’s Faculty of Medicine in the Galilee and the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine have signed a landmark agreement which will further promote collaboration between the two institutions.
The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), signed recently at the Israel Business Conference in Tel Aviv, will allow the two medical schools to continue their collaboration on a wide variety of projects.
The MOU was signed by Bar-Ilan Faculty of Medicine Dean Prof. Ran Tur-Kaspa and Miller School of Medicine Dean Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D.
Over the coming months the two institutions will explore the joint development of a cancer center which will integrate scientific research conducted by basic, translational and clinical faculty.
The two institutions will further seek to establish scholarly scientific discourse by advancing cooperation with key US and international organizations for purposes of conducting translational and clinical research across borders.
Additionally, they will work to establish strong links with the University of Miami Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center (SCCC) to facilitate scientific, educational and clinical collaboration, and to develop a state-of-the-art graduate program in cancer biology.
“Bar-Ilan University President Prof. Moshe Kaveh and I are very proud of the valuable ties we have established with the University of Miami in general and its world-class medical school in particular,” said Prof. Ran Tur-Kaspa.
“UM President Donna Shalala, Dean Goldschmidt and the entire team – including the Miller School’s Joseph Rosenblatt, M.D., and Michael Lewis, M.D. – have demonstrated a deep, ongoing commitment to ensuring that our Faculty become an international powerhouse of medicine and technology in the Galilee.
Dean Goldschmidt said the collaboration would allow the University of Miami to expand its reach and reputation and showcase its expertise in Israel, where UM already has strong ties and interests.
“Having this relationship in Israel and being able to collaborate and exchange students and faculty will positively impact our reputation and what we can accomplish as a medical school and as a university,” he said.
Two weeks ago, Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar visited the second grade class in which his son is a pupil. He read the children the book “Thomas and Me,” which he cowrote with the psychologist, writer and musician Shirly Yuval-Yair. The children laughed, got carried away and asked questions that only children know how to ask. In the car on the way back, Ben-Shahar’s eyes welled up with tears from the intensity of the experience. “I give a lot of lectures,” he said − he is one of the most sought-after speakers on the subject of positive psychology in Israel and abroad, and regularly filled Sanders Theater, the largest lec–ture hall at Harvard, when he taught there − “but I don’t remember when I was so moved.”
There was a time, in the remote past, when Ben-Shahar did not cry so easily. Nor did he allow himself to externalize his feelings. His introverted nature is still part of his psychic makeup. “Our neuroses do not disappear completely, they only become less dominant,” he says with a smile, quoting Karen Horney, the German psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. These days, Ben-Shahar lectures in positive psychology and leadership at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.
His writing partner, Yuval-Yair, is the complete opposite: a walking explosion of energy with an infectious laugh. She fuses stage lights with the light of the mind. As a psychologist, she treats patients with the aid of poetry; and as a musician, writer and playwright for children, she draws on psychological tools.
Yuval-Yair’s works include “The Wonderful Laugh Machine” and “Do Re Mooo.” She also appears with the actress Sagit Emet-Shirai in a musical, “When You Grow Up, You’ll Understand,” about a journey in the life of a woman. Ben-Shahar and Yuval-Yair are currently also collaborating in leading happiness workshops.
Like most working parents, we scheduled our last meeting for “after the kids are in bed” − around 9:30 P.M. Dishes holding the remnants of the children’s supper are still on the table in Ben-Shahar’s home in Ramat Hasharon. “There’s some pasta left,” he offers politely, “and remainders of vegetables” from the meal eaten by Ben-Shahar’s three children: David, 8, Shirel, 5, and Eliav, 3.
The cucumber slices look exactly like the ones I left in my house less than an hour ago. Yuval-Yair asks if she can have a pita with hummus and calls home to make sure everything is alright. Her older daughter is babysitting for the younger ones.
“It was quiet when I left, everyone was in bed,” she sighs, “but the moment I left they came out of their holes.” She would later describe herself as “a confident psychologist and perplexed mother” to Roni, 12, Gili, 9, and Yahali, 5.
Ben-Shahar and Yuval-Yair are currently celebrating the publication of two children’s books they coauthored: “Thomas and Me” and “Helen and Me.” The books (in Hebrew) are the first in a series called “True Heroes,” in which young readers and − no less important − their parents will learn about people in the past who coped with a difficulty by invoking one of the principles of positive psychology.
In the rhyming books the readers meet the Hermon family: mom, dad, the firstborn daughter Yael, the middle child Yoni, and the littlest, Yoav. In “Thomas and Me,” Yoni is a washout at school. His mother tells him about Thomas Edison, “a boy who was an expert at mistakes, a champion at flubs, a genius at blunders.” Years later, Edison’s many failures lead to the invention of the first incandescent light bulb, the first recording device and another thousand patents. “I’ll tell you a secret,” Yoni’s mother says to him in moments of crisis. “Learn how not to succeed, or you won’t succeed in learning.”
The heroine of the second book, about whom the Hermon children hear when they are stuck in a dark cave during a family outing, is Helen Keller, who at 19 months lost both her sense of sight and hearing but went on to lead a deeply satisfying life. The Hermon children learn that “It’s like a magic trick that works: when you move ahead with what you’ve got, you find out you’ve got a lot!”
“We chose the mechanism of coping for each hero,” Yuval-Yair notes. “The idea was first of all to tell a good story, with a message, and connect it to us. I know the child who’s entering the first grade and mixes up all the letters, and I know the guys who go on an outing every Saturday with their parents and never stop grumbling that it’s boring. In the books, we try to bring in the major tools afforded by positive psychology, tools that will help create psychological resilience.”
Bleary-eyed 2 A.M. car rides to wear out irritable newborns. Toddlers forging night-long sibling alliances against unsuspecting mothers. Exhausted parents resting their heads on their computer keyboards at work.
Years of hearing stories about sleepless nights for babies and their parents inspired Helena Harow, a maternal and child health practitioner, to pioneer Israel’s newly emerging baby sleep consulting industry. Six years ago, the U.S.-born mother of six left her position as supervisor of the maternal and child unit at the Mayanei Hayeshua Medical Center in Bnei Brak to study baby sleep consulting in England and the United States. Together with her colleague, Israeli-born Shira Krauthammer, Harow became Israel’s first certified sleep consultant, earning a qualification as a “gentle sleep coach.” She now works at Babylink, a Ra’anana-based company that provides pre- and postnatal services, including sleep consultations.
Sleep consulting involves training children – primarily between the ages of six months and two years – to fall asleep independently with minimal parental intervention, Harow explains. “A child wakes in the middle of the night and doesn’t know how to fall asleep on his own without being rocked or placed in a car. Sleep consulting is about re-conditioning the child so that he can self-soothe,” says Harow.
The process typically involves one home consultation, a customized sleep plan, and extensive follow-up and support over the phone or via e-mail for the next two months.
To the best of Harow’s knowledge, she and Krauthammer are the only certified sleep consultants in Israel. To date, there is no governing body in Israel that regulates the sleep consulting industry. And, as with other alternative health professions, Israel’s Education Ministry has yet to address certification for sleep consultants. “Anyone can call themselves a sleep therapist,” she explains, cautioning against this phenomenon.
“The fact that Shira and I studied in England and have an extensive background in nursing makes us very strong in the field and gives us credibility,” she says. “However, I believe that parents need to check the background and experience of a sleep consultant. Where have they studied? Have they been certified?”
Beersheba’s Soroka Medical Center and Ben Gurion University are developing a unique method to detect various types of cancer through a simple blood test.
Researchers say that in a first trial conducted recently, they succeeded in detecting cancer in almost 90% of cancer patients tested.
“This is still a research in the early stages of clinical trials,” clarifies Prof. Joseph Kapelushnik, head of the Pediatric Hemato-Oncology department at the hospital.
“But the purpose is to develop an efficient, cheap and simple method to detect as many types of cancers as possible.”
Doctors say it is imperative to increase early detection of cancer in patients, before it gets to advanced stages that must be treated with a long and difficult treatment.
Scientists around the world are working to find new methods to detect cancer; artificial noses that can identify a certain substance in cancer; techniques for discovering cancer antibodies; mammography to detect breast cancer; colonoscopy and fecal occult blood testing to detect colorectal cancer, for example.
Prof. Kapelushnik and his research partners have developed a method that detects cancer with blood tests, using infrared light beams. The researchers take a small amount of blood and insert it into a device they developed. Using this device, a spectrum of infrared light is beamed through the blood, enabling the researchers to estimate whether the patient has cancer or not.
At this stage, the researchers are concentrating their efforts on the detection of common cancer types, such as lung cancer and ovarial cancer. Nevertheless, they also succeeded in detecting other cancers.
In the latest clinical trial, about 200 patients with various types of cancer were examined along with a control group.
“We succeeded to tell them apart with 90% accuracy,” says Prof. Kapelushnik. “This is still a small number patients and we need thousands of people before we can say the new method actually works. In the meantime, though, we are optimistic about the results.”
By Avigayil Kadesh
“We are Ariel Berko and Yoav Levi from Rogozin High School in Kiryat Ata, Israel. In our experiment, that was chosen to be in the big final of the SpaceLab competition, we want to examine the effect of gravity on the mating process of baker’s yeast, which multiplies via sexual reproduction. We think that the yeast will not do sexual reproduction in space because in this process there are many changes in the cells of the yeast and we think that they are affected by gravity.”
That’s how two Israeli 10th-graders described their proposal for YouTube Space Lab, a worldwide competition that challenges 14- to 18-year-olds to design a science experiment that can be done in outer space. The concept was born at a marketing brainstorming session at Google, YouTube’s parent company, and is co-sponsored by Lenovo.
Based on popular votes received by thousands of applicants, the Israeli boys’ yeast experiment made it to the finals. Now the finalists’ ideas are being scrutinized by an international panel of judges including NASA officials, former astronauts Leland Melvin, Frank De Winne and Akihiko Hoshide, and Cirque du Soleil’s founder, Guy Laliberté.
Six regional winners to be announced February 21 will go to Washington, DC, in March to experience a Zero-G flight and receive other prizes including a Lenovo ThinkPad. Two global winners from this group, representing ages 14-16 and ages 17-18, will have their experiments performed 250 miles above Earth in the International Space Station (ISS), live-streamed on YouTube.
The global winners will get a trip to Tanegashima Island, Japan, to watch their experiment blast off in a rocket bound for the ISS. Alternatively, winners may wait until they turn 18 to train with cosmonauts in Star City, Russia.
Yeast and humans
Fifteen-year-old Yoav explains that he and Ariel (16) heard about the competition through the program for gifted young scientists that they attend for two days, three times a year, at the Davidson Institute of Science Education at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot. “They asked us if we wanted to take part, and we did,” says Ariel.
Their first idea was to see the effect of gravity on human reproductive cells, but that would have necessitated a microscope, which is against the rules of the competition. “So we searched for something in the same model but bigger,” says Yoav. “The Davidson Institute offered us to try it with yeast, and one of the PhD students there helped us plan the experiment.”
Ariel describes yeast as “a very interesting creature from which we can study about humans. We are more developed creatures, but with a lot in common.”
Yeast exists in two varieties: one reproduces asexually and the other sexually, through a complex mating process called “shmooing.” If yeast can reproduce in zero gravity, perhaps humans also could – and vice versa.
Their biology teacher at Rogozin also helped them ready their project, and they described the proposed experiment to all 1,500 students in their school. Kiryat Ata Mayor Yaakov Peretz encouraged everyone in town to get onto the website and vote for the local boys.
If they win, it will be Ariel’s first trip to America. Yoav was there in 2010 as part of a World ORT youth ambassadors program to Atlanta. “They wanted to let us get to know each other,” he explains. “When I came there [kids my age] still thought there are camels in Israel.”