Wait a Second. Plants Can Sneeze?


Photography Massimo Spadotto / Shutterstock

The inner life of plants—their communication, their responses to stimuli—are just, you know, so fun.

A new study arrived this week looking into possible problems from plants “sneezing.” The word was in quotes, but you just have to investigate something like that, right?

So here’s what’s going on. On certain surfaces which are deemed superhydrophobic—meaning water just sits on them, like a duck’s back but more so—very tiny drops of water can sometimes do something very strange. Individual drops of water, when they meet, instantly lose their surface tension and merge together into one larger drop of water. But that process involves energy. That surface tension is converted to kinetic energy—basically, the force of the merging of two water droplets can result in that new, big water drop pinging up from a surface, provided that surface is superhydrophobic.

Wheat leaves happen to be superhydrophobic, and researchers at Virginia Tech spent three years examining this leaping water phenomenon in wheat. They were specifically trying to learn how these airborne droplets could affect the spread of certain diseases, like leaf rust. Leaf rust is a fungal infection that can cause massive losses in yield of wheat crops. It also happens to be spread through the air.

The researchers discovered that these tiny droplets, microscopic in size, are fully capable of carrying leaf rust spores with them. And they’re so tiny that when they leap off the surface of the leaf, the wind can carry them—sometimes very far distances, to other plants, other fields, where the spore can land and begin a new infection.

It’s a significant discovery of how leaf rust can spread. But it’s also a reminder to say “Gesundheit” when passing a field of wet wheat.

Wait a Second. Plants Can Sneeze?