Plant Communication


Plants can use volatile organic compounds released from herbivore‐infested neighbours to anticipate future enemy pressure and adjust their defensive phenotype accordingly. The most likely explanation for the evolution of this phenomenon is that plants use volatile signals for within‐plant signalling, that is, to mount a systemic response to local damage in as yet undamaged parts. The benefits of this within‐plant signalling are obvious and the same remains true for the receivers of cues that allow them to anticipate upcoming enemy attack. By contrast, no study has demonstrated that the emitting plant benefits from warning its neighbours. The question remains open whether this signalling phenomenon represents communication or, rather, eavesdropping.

Key concepts:

  • Plants are sessile organisms and require phenotypic plasticity to cope with a rapidly changing and in part unpredictable environment.

  • Plants express induced systemic resistance to herbivores and pathogens.

  • Plants can anticipate future enemy attack by perceiving cues that are released from damaged neighbours.

  • Volatile organic compounds play multiple roles in the resistance of plants to pathogens and herbivores.

  • Communication is defined differently, making it difficult to clearly apply the term ‘plant communication’ to signalling between plants.

  • Volatile organic compounds serve as signals exchanged among plants and carnivores and likely also serve as plant hormones.

Keywords: indirect defence; induced defence; jasmonic acid; long‐distance signalling; plant communication; systemic resistance

Figure 1.

Airborne signalling within and between plants. In the (SAR) of tobacco to pathogens, the volatile ester of the active hormone, salicylic acid (SA), methyl salicylate (MeSA), serves as mobile vascular signal and likely represents the airborne signal that causes resistance induction in neighbouring plants as well. In the case of herbivore resistance, jasmonic acid (JA) represents the mobile hormone, but its methyl ester (MeJA) is volatile and can mediate airborne resistance expression in systemic parts of the same plant or in neighbouring plants. Further volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as Z‐hexenyl acetate have also been reported to induce defensive traits such as extrafloral nectar (EFN), VOCs and proteinase inhibitors (PIs). Airborne signalling within and among plants is, thus, mediated by various different volatile compounds. Parts of this figure are adapted with kind permission from Heil and Ton .



Arimura G‐I, Ozawa R, Shimoda T et al. (2000) Herbivory‐induced volatiles elicit defence genes in lima bean leaves. Nature 406: 512–515.

Baldwin IT and Schultz JC (1983) Rapid changes in tree leaf chemistry induced by damage: evidence for communication between plants. Science 221: 277–279.

Brenner ED, Stahlberg R, Mancuso S et al. (2006) Plant neurobiology: an integrated view of plant signaling. Trends in Plant Science 11: 413–419.

Bruin J, Dicke M and Sabelis MW (1992) Plants are better protected against spider‐mites after exposure to volatiles from infested conspecifics. Experientia 48: 525–529.

Dolch R and Tscharntke T (2000) Defoliation of alders (Alnus glutinosa) affects herbivory by leaf beetles on undamaged neighbours. Oecologia 125: 504–511.

Engelberth J, Alborn HT, Schmelz EA and Tumlinson JH (2004) Airborne signals prime plants against insect herbivore attack. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 101: 1781–1785.

Farmer EE (2001) Surface‐to‐air signals. Nature 411: 854–856.

Farmer EE and Ryan CA (1990) Interplant communication: airborne methyl jasmonate induces synthesis of proteinase inhibitors in plant leaves. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 87: 7713–7716.

Frost C, Appel H, Carlson J et al. (2007) Within‐plant signalling by volatiles overcomes vascular constraints on systemic signalling and primes responses against herbivores. Ecology Letters 10: 490–498.

Glinwood R, Ninkovic V, Pettersson J and Ahmed E (2004) Barley exposed to aerial allelopathy from thistles (Cirsium spp.) becomes less acceptable to aphids. Ecological Entomology 29: 188–195.

Green TR and Ryan CA (1972) Wound‐induced proteinase inhibitor in plant leaves: a possible defense mechanism against insects. Science 175: 776–777.

Heil M (2008) Indirect defence via tritrophic interactions. New Phytologist 178: 41–61.

Heil M (2009) Damaged‐self recognition in plant herbivore defence. Trends in Plant Science 14: 356–363.

Heil M and Silva Bueno JC (2007) Within‐plant signaling by volatiles leads to induction and priming of an indirect plant defense in nature. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the USA 104: 5467–5472.

Heil M and Ton J (2008) Long‐distance signalling in plant defence. Trends in Plant Science 13: 264–272.

Hilker M and Meiners T (2006) Early herbivore alert: insect eggs induce plant defense. Journal of Chemical Ecology 32: 1379–1397.

Karban R (2008) Plant behaviour and communication. Ecology Letters 11: 727–739.

Karban R, Baldwin I, Baxter K et al. (2000) Communication between plants: induced resistance in wild tobacco plants following clipping of neighboring sagebrush. Oecologia 125: 66–71.

Karban R, Shiojiri K, Huntzinger M and McCall AC (2006) Damage‐induced resistance in sagebrush: volatiles are key to intra‐ and interplant communication. Ecology 87: 922–930.

Kost C and Heil M (2006) Herbivore‐induced plant volatiles induce an indirect defence in neighbouring plants. Journal of Ecology 94: 619–628.

Orians C (2005) Herbivores, vascular pathways, and systemic induction: facts and artifacts. Journal of Chemical Ecology 31: 2231–2242.

Peñuelas J and Llusiá J (2004) Plant VOC emissions: making use of the unavoidable. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 19: 402–404.

Rhoades DF (1983) Responses of alder and willow to attack by tent caterpillars and webworms: evidence for pheromonal sensitivity of willows. In: Hedin PA (ed.) Plant Resistance to Insects, pp. 55–68. Washington DC: American Chemical Society.

Ross AF (1961) Systemic acquired resistance induced by localized virus infection in plants. Virology 14: 340–358.

Shulaev V, Silverman P and Raskin I (1997) Airborne signalling by methyl salicylate in plant pathogen resistance. Nature 385: 718–721.

Further Reading

Karban R and Baldwin IT (1997) Induced Responses to Herbivory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Walling LL (2000) The myriad plant responses to herbivores. Journal of Plant Growth Regulation 19: 195–216.

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
Heil, Martin(Dec 2009) Plant Communication. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0021915]