Internal clock helps young sunflowers follow the sun

Circadian strategy offers advantages, study finds


SUN SALUTATION  Mature sunflowers aim their flower heads to the east. That way, the flowers get warmer and attract more pollinators.

L. Hamers

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Young sunflowers grow better when they track the sun’s daily motion from east to west across the sky. An internal clock helps control the behavior,  biologist Stacey Harmer and colleagues report in the Aug. 5 Science.

Depending on the time of day, certain growth genes appear to be activated to different degrees on opposing sides of young sunflowers’ stems. The east side of their stems grow faster during the day, causing the stems to gradually bend from east to west. The west side grows faster at night, reorienting the plants to prepare them for the next morning. “At dawn, they’re already facing east again,” says Harmer, of the University of California, Davis. The behavior helped sunflowers grow bigger, her team found.

Young plants continued to grow from east to west each day even when their light source didn’t move. So Harmer and her colleagues concluded that the behavior was influenced by an internal clock like the one that controls human sleep/wake cycles, instead of being solely in response to available light.

That’s probably advantageous, Harmer says, “because you have a system that’s set up to run even if the environment changes transiently.” A cloudy morning doesn’t stop the plants from tracking, for instance.

Contrary to popular belief, mature sunflowers don’t track the sun — they perpetually face east. That’s probably because their stems have stopped growing. But Harmer and her colleagues found an advantage for the fixed orientation, too: Eastern-facing heads get warmer in the sun than westward-facing ones and attract more pollinators. 

CIRCADIAN RHYTHMS See how sunflower plants change their sun-orienting behavior as they mature. H. Atamian, N. Creux/UC Davis

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