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Biologists discover new plant reproduction behaviour

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The team analysed Erysimum incanum, a variety of wallflower.

Biologists linked to the University of Stirling have discovered a novel mechanism used by plants to self-reproduce in the absence of pollinators.

The phenomenon – previously unknown to the scientific community – promotes self-pollination and fertilisation in plants through the rubbing of anthers, the male reproductive organ of a flower that contains pollen. It allows plants to reproduce in the absence of pollinators, such as bees.

Movements in plants are rare and this is the first observation of this particular trait, which scientists believe could be important for reproduction in the future, given the worldwide decline in pollinators.

Dr Mohamed Abdelaziz launched the study at Stirling, while supported by an Impact Research Fellowship, before completing the work at the University of Granada.

He said: “This research has identified a new mechanism, anther rubbing, which promotes self-reproduction in plants. It consists of coordinated, repeated movements of the anthers over the stigma, part of the flower’s female reproductive system, for a number of hours – and ultimately results in the self-pollination of the flower.

“People tend to think of plants as being static organisms and, in reality, movements in plants are quite rare. However, our novel and unique discovery demonstrates that such movements do exist – and do have an important function in their biology, in this case reproduction.”

Mohamed Abdelaziz
Anther rubbing represents the first time that a coordinated and repeated movement in flowers has been described. This movement allows the plants to reach their maximum reproductive output without the need for pollinators and cross-fertilisation.
Dr Mohamed Abdelaziz Formerly of the Faculty of Natural Sciences

Dr Abdelaziz carried out the research by recording time-lapse videos of Erysimum incanum, a variety of wallflower from the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa, and evaluating anther rubbing on a different group of plants.

Seeds from the self-fertilisation grew into healthy plants, which produced just as many seeds as plants that were hand-fertilised with pollen from other plants, the study found.

Dr Abdelaziz added: “Anther rubbing represents the first time that a coordinated and repeated movement in flowers has been described. This movement allows the plants to reach their maximum reproductive output without the need for pollinators and cross-fertilisation.

“Previously, self-reproduction was considered as an accidental event, however, this work demonstrates that it could be adaptive – and adaptive traits promoting it can be developed in plants.

“With the loss of pollinators worldwide, any plant trait that promotes reproduction is important. For humans, that could also be important when considering the plants used in our industries and diet.”

The paper, Anther Rubbing, a New Mechanism That Actively Promotes Selfing in Plants, is published in The American Naturalist.

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