Traffic jams are the bane of commuters and drivers around the world. Virtually every sizable city on Earth has problems with road congestion, with some far worse than others. But though it might sometimes look hopeless, there are many things that municipalities can do to make life on the road at least a bit more bearable. Sometimes, these solutions can be exotic or disruptive. For instance, one unexpected source of inspiration are plants.

traffic jam

Credit: Pixabay.

Though seemingly stationary, plant growth is a complex and dynamic behavior that constantly adapts to the environment based on nutrient, water, and sunlight inputs. Inside the plants, water and nutrients are constantly shuffled about elegantly with the flow. Essentially, plants have found a solution to their own internal traffic jam problem.

One prime example is the flow of the nutrient boron inside plants’ stem. When in high concentration, boron build-up becomes toxic and kills cells. Researchers at the John Innes Centre, Norwich, and the University of Tokyo, Japan, found the plants cope by developing energy-sapping systems that respond rapidly to decongest the boron traffic. That’s what jamologists might want to study in greater detail.

Inside plants, everything must be on the move

Yes, there are actually scientists who are focused on studying and finding ways to avoid traffic jams, a field called jamology. With the help of real-life observations and mathematical modeling, jamologists can explain why traffic jams happen.

One famous study from the field involved 22 cars driving on a circular track. Scientists found that once a certain vehicle density threshold was crossed, traffic flow inevitably becomes unstable leading to the jam we all know and dread.

What’s more, the experiment demonstrated that the disturbance of jammed vehicles moves backwards relative to the cars themselves. In jamology, this is commonly referred to as a traffic wave.

Veronica Grieneisen and Stan Maree, both at the John Innes Centre, found a parallel between traffic waves and the way boron congestions are handled inside plants.

“These findings came to us totally out-of-the-blue, surprising us tremendously,” said Grieneisen.

“Even though we have worked with plants for many years, we were not expecting them to be constantly dealing with such dynamic behaviour” she added.

Though boron in the soil does not vary unexpectedly, plants have devoted considerable resources to respond to its signal. This includes genetically programmed transporters that almost immediately boron levels surrounding the root.

While investigating why plants require such a sophisticated system, the researchers made some striking findings.

When they modeled what would happen if the plant’s regulation system was slowed down, the boron started to accumulate, as expected. What was surprising to see was that instead of flowing from cell to cell, the accumulation moved backwards against the nutrient flow, just like a traffic wave.

“In both cases this leads to decreased throughput. On the road, this could mean more accidents. In plants, it causes cell damage due to the toxic boron peaks,” Grieneisen explained the findings published in the journal eLife.

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

Using imaging and molecular tools, the researchers concluded that was the transporter regulation absent, cells would periodically experience high boron. With this new information at hand, scientists have a better grasp on how plants adapt to harsher environments. Such knowledge might prove very useful when studying how ecosystems adapt to shifting environments in the face of climate change.

Not least, boron transport — or at least some principles — could be applied to road traffic systems to overcome traffic jams.

“At the end of the day, plants – even though they are unable to move as we do – are still able to teach us about how to live in the fast lane. There are tremendous hidden dynamics happening within their tissues, and mathematical modelling helps us see this more clearly,” Grieneisen said.