Plant Sensory Systems and Responses

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify common sensory systems and responses in plants

Animals can respond to environmental factors by moving to a new location. Plants, however, are rooted in place and must respond to the surrounding environmental factors. Plants have sophisticated systems to detect and respond to light, gravity, temperature, and physical touch. Receptors sense environmental factors and relay the information to effector systems—often through intermediate chemical messengers—to bring about plant responses.

Plant Responses to Light

Plants have a number of sophisticated uses for light that go far beyond their ability to photosynthesize low-molecular-weight sugars using only carbon dioxide, light, and water. Photomorphogenesis is the growth and development of plants in response to light. It allows plants to optimize their use of light and space. Photoperiodism is the ability to use light to track time. Plants can tell the time of day and time of year by sensing and using various wavelengths of sunlight. Phototropism is a directional response that allows plants to grow towards, or even away from, light. Positive phototropism is growth towards a light source (Figure 1), while negative phototropism (also called skototropism) is growth away from light.

Photo shows blue flowers all tilted in the same direction. The flowers have four small petals and a yellow center, and each flower sits atop a slender green stem.

Figure 1. Azure bluets (Houstonia caerulea) display a phototropic response by bending toward the light. (credit: Cory Zanker)

The sensing of light in the environment is important to plants; it can be crucial for competition and survival. The response of plants to light is mediated by different photoreceptors, which are comprised of a protein covalently bonded to a light-absorbing pigment called a chromophore. Together, the two are called a chromoprotein.

The red/far-red and violet-blue regions of the visible light spectrum trigger structural development in plants. Sensory photoreceptors absorb light in these particular regions of the visible light spectrum because of the quality of light available in the daylight spectrum. In terrestrial habitats, light absorption by chlorophylls peaks in the blue and red regions of the spectrum. As light filters through the canopy and the blue and red wavelengths are absorbed, the spectrum shifts to the far-red end, shifting the plant community to those plants better adapted to respond to far-red light. Blue-light receptors allow plants to gauge the direction and abundance of sunlight, which is rich in blue–green emissions. Water absorbs red light, which makes the detection of blue light essential for algae and aquatic plants.


The word “horticulturist” comes from the Latin words for garden (hortus) and culture (cultura). This career has been revolutionized by progress made in the understanding of plant responses to environmental stimuli. Growers of crops, fruit, vegetables, and flowers were previously constrained by having to time their sowing and harvesting according to the season. Now, horticulturists can manipulate plants to increase leaf, flower, or fruit production by understanding how environmental factors affect plant growth and development.

Greenhouse management is an essential component of a horticulturist’s education. To lengthen the night, plants are covered with a blackout shade cloth. Long-day plants are irradiated with red light in winter to promote early flowering. For example, fluorescent (cool white) light high in blue wavelengths encourages leafy growth and is excellent for starting seedlings. Incandescent lamps (standard light bulbs) are rich in red light, and promote flowering in some plants. The timing of fruit ripening can be increased or delayed by applying plant hormones. Recently, considerable progress has been made in the development of plant breeds that are suited to different climates and resistant to pests and transportation damage. Both crop yield and quality have increased as a result of practical applications of the knowledge of plant responses to external stimuli and hormones.

Horticulturists find employment in private and governmental laboratories, greenhouses, botanical gardens, and in the production or research fields. They improve crops by applying their knowledge of genetics and plant physiology. To prepare for a horticulture career, students take classes in botany, plant physiology, plant pathology, landscape design, and plant breeding. To complement these traditional courses, horticulture majors add studies in economics, business, computer science, and communications.

Use the navigation menu in the left panel of this website to view images of plants in motion.

Plant Responses to Gravity

Whether or not they germinate in the light or in total darkness, shoots usually sprout up from the ground, and roots grow downward into the ground. A plant laid on its side in the dark will send shoots upward when given enough time. Gravitropism ensures that roots grow into the soil and that shoots grow toward sunlight. Growth of the shoot apical tip upward is called negative gravitropism, whereas growth of the roots downward is called positive gravitropism.

Amyloplasts (also known as statoliths) are specialized plastids that contain starch granules and settle downward in response to gravity. Amyloplasts are found in shoots and in specialized cells of the root cap. When a plant is tilted, the statoliths drop to the new bottom cell wall. A few hours later, the shoot or root will show growth in the new vertical direction.

The mechanism that mediates gravitropism is reasonably well understood. When amyloplasts settle to the bottom of the gravity-sensing cells in the root or shoot, they physically contact the endoplasmic reticulum (ER), causing the release of calcium ions from inside the ER. This calcium signaling in the cells causes polar transport of the plant hormone IAA to the bottom of the cell. In roots, a high concentration of IAA inhibits cell elongation. The effect slows growth on the lower side of the root, while cells develop normally on the upper side. IAA has the opposite effect in shoots, where a higher concentration at the lower side of the shoot stimulates cell expansion, causing the shoot to grow up. After the shoot or root begin to grow vertically, the amyloplasts return to their normal position. Other hypotheses—involving the entire cell in the gravitropism effect—have been proposed to explain why some mutants that lack amyloplasts may still exhibit a weak gravitropic response.

Plant Responses to Wind and Touch

The shoot of a pea plant winds around a trellis, while a tree grows on an angle in response to strong prevailing winds. These are examples of how plants respond to touch or wind.

The movement of a plant subjected to constant directional pressure is called thigmotropism, from the Greek words thigma meaning “touch,” and tropism implying “direction.” Tendrils are one example of this. The meristematic region of tendrils is very touch sensitive; light touch will evoke a quick coiling response. Cells in contact with a support surface contract, whereas cells on the opposite side of the support expand. Application of jasmonic acid is sufficient to trigger tendril coiling without a mechanical stimulus.

A thigmonastic response is a touch response independent of the direction of stimulus. In the Venus flytrap, two modified leaves are joined at a hinge and lined with thin fork-like tines along the outer edges. Tiny hairs are located inside the trap. When an insect brushes against these trigger hairs, touching two or more of them in succession, the leaves close quickly, trapping the prey. Glands on the leaf surface secrete enzymes that slowly digest the insect. The released nutrients are absorbed by the leaves, which reopen for the next meal.

Thigmomorphogenesis is a slow developmental change in the shape of a plant subjected to continuous mechanical stress. When trees bend in the wind, for example, growth is usually stunted and the trunk thickens. Strengthening tissue, especially xylem, is produced to add stiffness to resist the wind’s force. Researchers hypothesize that mechanical strain induces growth and differentiation to strengthen the tissues. Ethylene and jasmonate are likely involved in thigmomorphogenesis.

Use the menu at the left to navigate to three short movies: a Venus fly trap capturing prey, the progressive closing of sensitive plant leaflets, and the twining of tendrils.

Defense Responses against Herbivores and Pathogens

Plants face two types of enemies: herbivores and pathogens. Herbivores both large and small use plants as food, and actively chew them. Pathogens are agents of disease. These infectious microorganisms, such as fungi, bacteria, and nematodes, live off of the plant and damage its tissues. Plants have developed a variety of strategies to discourage or kill attackers.

The first line of defense in plants is an intact and impenetrable barrier. Bark and the waxy cuticle can protect against predators. Other adaptations against herbivory include thorns, which are modified branches, and spines, which are modified leaves. They discourage animals by causing physical damage and inducing rashes and allergic reactions. A plant’s exterior protection can be compromised by mechanical damage, which may provide an entry point for pathogens. If the first line of defense is breached, the plant must resort to a different set of defense mechanisms, such as toxins and enzymes.

Secondary metabolites are compounds that are not directly derived from photosynthesis and are not necessary for respiration or plant growth and development. Many metabolites are toxic, and can even be lethal to animals that ingest them. Some metabolites are alkaloids, which discourage predators with noxious odors (such as the volatile oils of mint and sage) or repellent tastes (like the bitterness of quinine). Other alkaloids affect herbivores by causing either excessive stimulation (caffeine is one example) or the lethargy associated with opioids. Some compounds become toxic after ingestion; for instance, glycol cyanide in the cassava root releases cyanide only upon ingestion by the herbivore.

Mechanical wounding and predator attacks activate defense and protection mechanisms both in the damaged tissue and at sites farther from the injury location. Some defense reactions occur within minutes: others over several hours. The infected and surrounding cells may die, thereby stopping the spread of infection.

Long-distance signaling elicits a systemic response aimed at deterring the predator. As tissue is damaged, jasmonates may promote the synthesis of compounds that are toxic to predators. Jasmonates also elicit the synthesis of volatile compounds that attract parasitoids, which are insects that spend their developing stages in or on another insect, and eventually kill their host. The plant may activate abscission of injured tissue if it is damaged beyond repair.

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