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Norwich researchers discover plants may hold the secret to stopping traffic jams

PUBLISHED: 07:00 05 September 2017 | UPDATED: 12:32 05 September 2017

Major traffic queues. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Major traffic queues. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2015

Traffic jams are the curse of the commute, the scourge of the school run and the bane of Bank Holidays.

But gridlocked motorists may soon be relieved of their pain thanks to the power of plants.

A study by Norwich jamologists, investigators of traffic jams, from the John Innes Centre, in Norwich, and the University of Tokyo, Japan, shows how plants are able to avoid toxic nutrients becoming blocked in cells.

Researchers started by using maths and real life models to explain how traffic jams happen.

An experiment showed how a disruption of jammed vehicles affects further back, this is called a traffic wave.

The link to plants came after two teams, led by Veronica Grieneisen and Dr Stan Maree at the John Innes Centre, investigated how plants transport the nutrient boron, which is toxic to plant cells in high doses but needed for plant growth.

The team noticed that plants have developed a system that rapidly responds to boron.

Dr Grieneisen said: “We asked why plants invest such energy to respond rapidly to a signal.”

Scientists modelled what would happen if they slowed down the plant’s reaction.

They noticed that as plants transported boron from one cell to another, traffic jams developed with high build ups of the nutrient.

Instead of flowing from cell to cell boron went back against the flow, just like a traffic wave.

“We conclude that plants have evolved systems to avoid internal traffic jams,” Dr Grieneisen added.

“If the transporter regulation were not as fast, cells would experience high boron.”

“These peaks slowly move from one cell to the next. Just as in a traffic jam, the position of the jam slowly moves against the vehicular flow.

“On the road, this could mean more accidents. In plants, it causes cell damage due to the toxic boron peaks.

“To avoid detrimental effects, boron regulation needs to be quick – this solved our initial conundrum.”

“Plants have evolved simple solutions for overcoming these traffic jams and these can inspire solutions for roads all over the world,” she added.

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