Pushy plants? Student discovery ‘adds new dimension to plant biology’

A new University of Florida study has found that a local plant, the tall elephant’s foot, can be pushy — which wasn’t previously known.

The research, conducted by mathematics and botany senior Camille Sicangco, has been accepted for publication in Current Biology and shows the plant exerts force on its own, not just in response to external forces such as climate and soil.

Learning that native plants aren’t always passive “adds a new dimension to plant biology”, says Francis E. “Jack” Putz, a UF botany professor who advised Sicangco’s research.

The plants — low growing from a center arrangement of leaves, known as a rosette — have greater leverage to push, according to the study. Findings may also apply to other low-hovering plants, such as aloe or agave.

To determine plant force, Sicangco transplanted more than 60 plants from a Gainesville savanna. Working with a team of engineers to invent a new method of measurement, they placed a cantilever — or structural element supported at only one end — at the tip of each leaf, photographed its placement, and measured the change after 24 hours. They found an average force change of 1.92 grams. In a separate part of the study, the team also found the plants could displace up to 20 ryegrass seedlings at a time, pushing them out of the way to secure space.

A woman cuts pieces of a potted plant.

The research shows the plant exerts force on its own, not just in response to external forces such as climate and soil. (Dylan Taylor/UF)

Moving into science

It is rare for an undergraduate student to publish research in such a prestigious journal — let alone to do so using new methods of discovery — but advisor Putz encouraged the naturally creative and inquisitive Sicangco to follow her curiosity.

Growing up without scientist role models, Sicangco studied dance, wrote, and painted. As a first-year student, she spent time considering environmental law and environmental engineering. Taking a botany class on a whim as a sophomore, she found a serious interest in the work and had the opportunity to pursue lab research with Putz.

“As a kid, I didn’t see science as something creative with room for exploration; I viewed it as rigid and methodical,” Sicangco said. But there’s so much we don’t know and so many questions to explore. I find so many opportunities to channel my creative energy into things I find really intriguing.”

In particular, she realized thinking about plants was especially exciting for her.

“We often talk about plant blindness — not seeing them or knowing what they are,” she said. “Once I started asking questions about why plants existed in the form they did and how they live in the world, that opened many doors for me in research and satisfying my curiosity.”

She said any student thinking about pursuing research should embrace the opportunity.

“There’s value in learning what’s behind what you hear in classes,” Sicangco said. “And in becoming part of a larger community of people exploring questions in science.”

Catherine Arnold April 21, 2022