Scientists Discover That Plants Respond To Anesthetics Too

Cape sundews secrete a sticky substance on the tips of their tentacles to trap insects. Once stuck, they roll their leaves upon the critter. Grazyna Palaszewska/Shutterstock

In weird plant news of the day, it seems some plants feel the drowsy, numbing power of anesthetics too. To exactly what degree is anyone’s guess, however the plants in the study clearly lost their autonomous and touch-induced movements when presented with a cocktail of chemical combinations. 

Under the influence of anesthetics, venus flytraps no longer snapped their traps shut, nor did they generate electrical signals. Pea tendrils similarly stopped their movement, freezing in a curlicue shape.


In order to assess this, the team used a single-lens reflex camera to track the movements of the plants before, during, and after exposure to anesthetics. Confocal microscopy and surface AgCl electrodes to measure electrical signals were also used.

“The fact that plant cells responded to these compounds in a similar manner to animals and humans is intriguing,” write the authors. “It is puzzling how such chemically and physically diverse compounds, including the chemically inert gas xenon, the volatile organic solvent ether and water-soluble molecule such as lidocaine, can induce very similar impacts in both plants and animals."

Other plants tested in the study, published in the Annals of Botany, were the sensitive plant, Cape sundew, and garden cress. The Cape sundew is a carnivorous plant that secretes a sticky substance on the tips of its tentacles to trap insects. Once stuck, they roll the critter up in their leaves. Yet when treated with 15 percent diethyl ether, they ceased moving altogether. This was, however, reversible – after the anesthetic was removed, the leaves recovered their wily ways.

The team notes that these findings suggest that the immobilization of plant movement is based on the inhibition of action potentials. "In other words, as in animals and humans, bioelectricity and action potentials animate not only humans and animals but also plants."


It’s possible then that plants could be used as preliminary subjects to study anesthetics. Doing so could be an important step in learning more about various anesthetics' modes of action, which still need some fleshing out. 

In fact, anesthetics for surgical purposes are a recent addition to mankind's medical repertoire. It was Dr William Morton in October 1846 that performed the first surgical procedure under an anesthetic. In doing so, he eliminated one of mankind’s greatest fears – the pain of surgery.


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