“The research was very painstaking because Arabidopsis roots are nearly translucent when they are young and were also tangled when I removed them from plates, so measuring the roots took a great amount of patience,” Biedrzycki notes.

“This manuscript is very important for my research since the focus of my thesis project is understanding the biochemical mechanism behind root secretions,” she says. “This research has allowed me to probe the natural mechanism of kin recognition and root secretion.”

The study was replicated by Dudley's lab in Canada, with similar results.

Strangers planted next to each other are often shorter, Bais notes, because so much of their energy is directed at root growth.

Because siblings aren't competing against each other, their roots are often much shallower.

Bais says he and his colleagues also have noticed that as sibling plants grow next to each other, their leaves often will touch and intertwine compared to strangers that grow rigidly upright and avoid touching.

The study leaves a lot of unanswered questions that Bais hopes to explore further. How might sibling plants grown in large “monocultures,” such as corn or other major crop plants, be affected? Are they more susceptible to pathogens? And how do they survive without competing?

“It's possible that when kin are grown together, they may balance their nutrient uptake and not be greedy,” Bais speculates.

The research also may have implications for the home gardener.

“Often we'll put plants in the ground next to each other and when they don't do well, we blame the local garden center where we bought them or we attribute their failure to a pathogen,” Bais says. “But maybe there's more to it than that.”

Bais's research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and by the NSF-Delaware Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). The Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada provided research funding to Dudley.

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