Plants lack a central nervous system, and yet general anesthetic drugs can still knock them out.
The discovery makes the mysteries of anesthesia all the more interesting—we still don’t know exactly what happens to the cells and electrical signals in our bodies when under the influence of anesthetics. But studying how plants respond could help scientists gain a more thorough understanding of how it works.
Here’s Beth Mole, writing for ArsTechnica:
The authors of the new study, led by Italian and German plant biologists, suggest that plants could help us—once and for all—figure out the drugs’ mechanism of action. Moreover, the researchers are hopeful that after that’s sorted out, plants could be a useful tool to study and develop new anesthetic drugs. “As plants in general, and the model plant [Arabidopsis] thaliana in particular, are suitable to experimental manipulation (they do not run away) and allow easy electrical recordings, we propose them as ideal model objects to study anaesthesia and to serve as a suitable test system for human anaesthesia,” they conclude.
The scientists collected samples of plants that tend to move a lot, like the Venus flytrap, the herb Mimosa pudica, and carnivorous sundew plants. The team exposed the plants to general aesthetics in various ways, and in all cases, the anesthetics caused the plants to become unresponsive.
After noticing that the Venus fly trap became immobilized, the scientists analyzed the action potentials, or electrical pulses, on the traps’ surfaces and discovered that the pulses disappeared—then reappeared about 900 seconds later. The researchers also found that the weed Arabidopsis lost its ability to process and recycle membrane-enclosed cargo when exposed to anesthesia. This latter piece of evidence supports scientists’ hypothesis that anesthetic drugs alter fats (lipids) inside cell membranes to pull off its stunt of reversible loss of consciousness.
Still, scientists have more work to do to completely comprehend how anesthesia works, and what it says about human—or plant—consciousness. In the meantime, here’s a Gross Science episode about four deadly types of carnivorous plants: