When Sunflowers Follow the Sun

Tropisms are widely studied biological phenomena that involve the growth of an organism in response to environmental stimuli. Phototropism is the growth and development of plants in response to light. Heliotropism, a specific form of phototropism, describes growth in response to the sun. Discussions of heliotropism frequently include sunflowers and their ability to “track the sun.” This conjures up images of a field of sunflowers in full bloom following the sun across the sky. However cool this might sound, it simply doesn’t happen. Young sunflowers, before they bloom, track the sun. At maturity and in bloom, the plants hold still.

What is happening in these plants is still pretty cool though, and a report published in an August 2016 issue of Science sheds some light on the heliotropic movements of young sunflowers. They begin the morning facing east. As the sun progresses across the sky, the plants follow, ending the evening facing west. Over night, they reorient themselves to face east again. As they reach maturity, this movement slows, and most of the flowers bloom facing east. Over a series of experiments, researchers were able to determine the cellular and genetic mechanisms involved in this spectacular instance of solar tracking.

Helianthus annuus (common sunflower) is a native of North America, sharing this distinction with dozens of other members of this recognizable genus. It is commonly cultivated for its edible seeds (and the oil produced from them) as well as for its ornamental value. It is a highly variable species and hybridizes readily. Wild populations often cross with cultivated ones, and in many instances the common sunflower is considered a pesky weed. Whether crop, wildflower, or weed, its phototropic movements are easy to detect, making it an excellent subject of study.

Researchers began by tying plants to stakes so that they couldn’t move. Other plants were grown in pots and turned to face west in the morning. The growth of these plants was significantly stunted compared to plants that were not manipulated in these ways, suggesting that solar tracking promotes growth.

The researchers wondered if a circadian system was involved in the movements, and so they took sunflowers that had been growing in pots in a field and placed them indoors beneath a fixed overhead light source. For several days, the plants continued their east to west and back again movements. Over time, the movements became less detectable. This and other experiments led the researchers to conclude that a “circadian clock guides solar tracking in sunflowers.”

Another series of experiments helped the researchers determine what was happening at a cellular level that was causing the eastern side of the stem to grow during the day and the western side to grow during the night. Gene expression and growth hormone levels differed on either side of the stem depending on what time of day it was. In an online article published by University of California Berkeley, Andy Fell summarizes the findings: “[T]here appear to be two growth mechanisms at work in the sunflower stem. The first sets a basic rate of growth for the plant, based on available light. The second, controlled by the circadian clock and influenced by the direction of light, causes the stem to grow more on one side than another, and therefore sway east to west during the day.”

The researchers observed that as the plants reach maturity, they move towards the west less and less. This results in most of the flowers opening in an eastward facing direction. This led them to ask if this behavior offers any sort of ecological advantage. Because flowers are warmer when they are facing the sun, they wondered if they might see an increase in pollinator visits during morning hours on flowers facing east versus those facing west. Indeed, they did: “pollinators visited east-facing heads fivefold more often than west-facing heads.” When west-facing flowers where warmed with a heater in the morning, they received more pollinator visits than west-facing flowers that were not artificially warmed, “albeit [still] fewer than east-facing flowers.” However, increased pollinator visits may be only part of the story, so further investigations are necessary.

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