How Plants Warn Each Other When They're Under Attack

A new installation explores the defence mechanisms nature has evolved to survive its greatest threat yet: humans.

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25 October 2017, 1:14am

Image via Shutterstock

"Nearly all plants release [methyl jasmonate] when they are under stress or under attack," Emily Parsons-Lord tells VICE. "It is a warning signal. But, at the same time, it's kind of beautiful."

The chemical she's talking about builds up in plants when they're damaged. This damage could arise from feeding animals or deforestation, but they all trigger the same range of defence mechanisms. Some plants secrete a sticky, toxic resin, while others pump their leaves full of molecules making them make them indigestible to insects.

Perhaps the most interesting thing is that this stress pheromone, methyl jasmonate, lets plants warn each other of danger. The pheromone travels through the air from damaged leaves, and is received by nearby plants through tiny pores in their leaves. Recognising a threat, they begin releasing their own methyl jasmonate.

Now, for her latest work, Sydney-based artist Emily Parsons-Lord has distilled this chemical—so humans can get a sense of the fear they've instilled in plants. Exhibiting this month at Carriageworks in Sydney as a part of the Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art, the installation invites the viewer to walk out over a small bridge across a dark expanse of water, where the eerie methyl jasmonate mist rains upon them.

"It's metaphoric" Parsons-Lord muses, "Humanity is just blindly walking into the Anthropocene, starry-eyed."

Image supplied

The methyl jasmonate pheromone itself is a tiny molecule, one which was only discovered recently but, like all of Emily's work, it stands for something much larger. While humans don't have the receptors necessary to sense methyl jasmonate, it's hard not to wonder just how much of it could be in our own lungs right now—given the scale of destruction we've inflicted on the environment.

"[Air] is full of so many chemicals, DNA, viruses—so much that we can't read or process," Parsons-Lord says. "I like the idea that we are breathing it all the time, unknowing."

Much of Parsons-Lord's work is not of this time. Literally. For the past few years, the Sydney-based artist has been recreating the air of different epochs of the Earth's history, so gallerygoers can breathe the air of different time. It's art that exists at the fringes of science, designed to break down what we think of as a stable reality.

Photo by Kelly MacDonald.

"We are so deeply human. We can see 80 years in the past, 80 years in the future. It's hard for us to think outside the scale of our own lifetimes," she says. "Every time we breathe, we are changing the composition of the air, adding more carbon dioxide. Air has its own life, it tells the history of the Earth."

And with All Things Fall, Parsons-Lord is forcing humans to acknowledge and experience the impacts of this moment in time that we've brought upon the Earth with our actions. "The Anthropocene is human-created. We devised our own means of destruction, we know it, and we are doing it anyway," she says. "But part of me isn't too alarmist about it. All things fall. The Earth itself will be reconfigured, and some other life will be able to survive, and there will be a new era."

All Things Fall is showing from October 19–29 as part of the Future Leaks Out at Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art in Sydney, alongside works from Tully Arnot , Hannah Donnelly , Angela Goh , and Tristan Jalleh .

See more of Emily's work here.

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