What is it about?

The question of how flesh-eating plants attract, catch, recognize and digest animal prey has fascinated biologists for more than a century. Indeed, Charles Darwin famously wrote an entire book on the subject! Despite this interest, our molecular understanding of this animal-like ability to capture prey remains largely mysterious. Here, we explored the role of calcium as a signaling molecule in carnivorous sundew leaves. Using genetically engineered plants and time lapse microscopy, we recorded in real time rapid and dynamic changes in calcium levels in the leaf cells following live prey capture. Changes in calcium could be replicated by touch stimuli and were important for leaf movements typically associated with carnivorous behavior. In non-carnivorous plants, calcium signaling is often part of a defense response to herbivorous insect pests. This relationship supports the hypothesis proposed by others that the sundew evolved carnivory from insect defense pathways.

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Why is it important?

The study of how plants evolved carnivory as a means to supplement the nutrient-poor soils in which they grow is challenging. This is in large part due to the genetic intractability of working with these non-model organisms. Our study, as well as the recent work of others, present new methods to genetically-engineer these plants, allowing the field to resolve previously unanswerable questions. In addition, the relationship between carnivory and insect defense in plants suggests that these unusual species might provide novel and exquisitely sensitive systems for better understanding how plants more generally sense and respond to insects in their environment.


From my experience, there are few plants which inspire the imagination as much as plant carnivores. It is easy for a scientifically curious child or adult to be struck in wonderment by the rapid leaf movements of some carnivorous plant species as they catch and digest animal prey. It is no surprise then that they have inspired numerous “monster” plants in popular culture, from computer games and books to television and film! Here, we record the rapid response to the mechanical touch of an insect at the molecular level, with beautiful and remarkable time lapse movies of cell signaling events. My work in this field has not been possible without interested collaborators, who have helped instigate, drive, and push the research where it needed to go.

Carl Procko
Salk Institute for Biological Studies

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Dynamic calcium signals mediate the feeding response of the carnivorous sundew plant, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July 2022, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2206433119.
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