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In my universe, nuclear warfare got to be overused and out of hand, this caused crops to die in drastic amounts.

Scientists decided to genetically modify plants to survive nuclear radiation, so they tested it on gourd type plants such as:

  • Pumpkins
  • Melons
  • Squash

However, something went wrong and caused the plants to become sentient. The newly sentient pumpkins and melons formed an alliance to save the planet by eliminating humans, while the squashes decided to help the humans.

Is there someway for this to be scientifically possible, or is this impossible?

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    $\begingroup$ It may be more effective to ask, whats the simplest way to get from a pumpkin to a sentient pumpkin in a scientifically plausible way. (if you're asking about the biology of it all anyway) $\endgroup$ – James Dec 19 '17 at 21:29
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah Probably,but I would want to know about every aspect of the topic though, and how it would fit in a storyline about what caused it, how it was caused, and how it can result in the future of it's universe. $\endgroup$ – BlueTangsRock Dec 19 '17 at 21:34
  • $\begingroup$ I don't know what you mean with the "didn't work". If you've got questions about markdown you can just use the help or look at other posts by clicking on "edit" under their posts. As I was the only one who commented under your post at the time you wrote that I was pinged by the system. Normally you would need to write an "@" in front of a name. For example to notify James, one of our moderators as evidenced by the diamond besides his name, you would write @James. The OP is always notified so I don't need to write your name in the comment to notify you. You can notify one person per comment. $\endgroup$ – Sec SE - clear Monica's name Dec 19 '17 at 22:46
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    $\begingroup$ You probably mean "sapient", not "sentient". $\endgroup$ – imallett Dec 19 '17 at 23:47
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    $\begingroup$ @Myrmidon You know you can flag right? Mods are not generally going to close down a post unless it is blatantly wrong/offensive. We look to you all to do that. $\endgroup$ – James Dec 20 '17 at 6:16

11 Answers 11

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Possible? Sure. We are sentient thanks to our genes so it is, by all means, a genetic trait.

Believeable? No.

For many reasons:

  • We still don't know what actually makes some animals sentient.
  • "Something went wrong" works pretty much like spontaneous mutation, usually means organism can't live, is sick, or only something insignificant is changed.
  • Plants do not have anything like our neurons. Nothing similar enough to be changed by simple mutation. Heck, we have no idea how to approach it on purpose.
  • Plants don't have access to enough energy to run human-size brain.
  • Your story requires them not only to be sentient, but also to have means of communication and locomotion. This would make them more similar to animals than what they really are, requiring more foreign DNA than DNA that would be left from original, and probably more than they already have, too. For that effect we would probably rather start from a cow or something.
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  • $\begingroup$ It is commonly cited that humans and bananas share equivalent genes for about half their genomes, so making a plant into an animal might not require changing most of their dna if you take most to mean more than half. $\endgroup$ – user25818 Dec 19 '17 at 23:05
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    $\begingroup$ @notstoreboughtdirt human genome is 3,234.83 Mb (Mega-basepairs) big. Banana genome is only 600 Mb. It takes pretty funny math to say we share 60% of genome when banana only have about what, 19% the size we do? $\endgroup$ – Mołot Dec 19 '17 at 23:13
  • $\begingroup$ @notstoreboughtdirt that said, I edited my answer because "replacement" was not the best word there. Hope it's better worded now. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Dec 19 '17 at 23:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Mołot: I think that the math may work because "genes in common" means that "the gene can be found in both genomes", but that does not take in account the number of copies, nor necessarily the way that the gene is expressed. $\endgroup$ – Jean Hominal Dec 20 '17 at 13:49
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    $\begingroup$ Didn't M. Night Shamyalan (however you spell it) do this in the movie The Happening. Where plants somehow were able to get scared of humans and excrete something that caused us to commit suicide. Morale of the story: that was not a good movie... at all... and too hard to even believe. $\endgroup$ – Tyler Dahle Dec 20 '17 at 15:34
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Speaking as a college professor that works in artificial intelligence, this is basically all impossible. Sentience would require some way for plants to both sense and "model" the world around them using abstractions. To the best of our current knowledge, that requires neurons, in large quantities, in order to think. We call those brains.

It is likely that something as small as a mouse has some sentience (self-awareness), several experiments indicate they do.

But for long-term planning of strategies like you speak of, the human brain is the only one we are aware of that is capable of that. I think your plants would need brains at least the size of a young human.

Now those neurons could be distributed through much of the plant, perhaps. But even then, it appears much of our own intellect was evolved in response to our ability to manipulate objects and things. Plants do not have muscles either.

By the time you give plants all the attributes they need to evolve sentience, they are no longer plants but animals!

So I would say no, it is not possible for plants to be accidentally mutated into any form that can have sentience to the scale that allows them to plan for the future.

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  • $\begingroup$ So if scientists knew what makes things sentient, and it was intentional to engineer the gourds with a brain and muscles, to make the "plants" make discissions that could make the "plants" realize that they're in a high radiation area and would cause the plants to go elsewhere from where it would be dangerous for them, so farmers could know when their "plants" aren't happy with their location, but somewhere during the tests the "plants" rebelled against their original purpose, then the events mentioned in my question could be possible? Even if it basically turns the plants to animals? $\endgroup$ – BlueTangsRock Dec 19 '17 at 20:43
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    $\begingroup$ @BlueTangsRock No. I don't think a mobile living entity with brains and muscles can be called a "plant". Plants have roots, they get their energy by photosynthesis, which is 10,000 times too little energy to support a large brain. And no animal is going to grow a fruit like a gourd. Of course you can write whatever you want, but anything remotely close to what you want is 100% scientifically impossible. I would probably go for radiation changing ants/bees/termites or even mice to enable a hive sentience that rivaled or exceeded humans. 5000 mice together have more brains than a human. $\endgroup$ – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Dec 19 '17 at 20:58
  • $\begingroup$ @BlueTangsRock You could take that from what Amadeus said if you tweak the story. You need to change the plants to the point they are not plants anymore. However, it cannot happen by random chance, since the odds are zero that radiation would randomly generate all the exact features needed, and even if it did the current plant generation would need to be able to somehow give birth to the new animal one, but can't. There likely needs to be an intelligent designer who sabotages the radiation experiments to cause this, and the first generation new plant-animals need to be raised in test tubes. $\endgroup$ – Loduwijk Dec 19 '17 at 21:01
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    $\begingroup$ @TylerH I would probably include Neandertals and perhaps our common ancestor, Heidelbergensis, based upon hints (in grave goods) of primitive religious practices which may imply a belief in life after death, which IMO require abstract thinking and long term planning. I don't have citations. Chimpanzees, it seems clear from many experiments, cannot plan more than a few hours ahead, even if it would keep them from going hungry, or get them something they love. Bottle nose Dolphins might have a language, that is unproven, and I am unaware if long term planning has been tested with them. $\endgroup$ – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Dec 20 '17 at 19:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Amadeus "Chimpanzees, it seems clear from many experiments, cannot plan more than a few hours ahead, even if it would keep them from going hungry, or get them something they love" -- I know humans like that, too. $\endgroup$ – Jules Dec 20 '17 at 20:02
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It's a popular misconception, but it wasn't the actual plants that became sentient. Rather, something went wrong with the symbiote that provided the resistance in coordination with the genetic changes. We based it off of a slime mold, so as to pervade the plant and provide adaptive repair mechanisms. This worked amazingly well, but, unbeknownst to us, the symbiote had started developing complex colony-based structures akin to neurons. In addition, it was not just repairing damage from radiation, but actually harnessing it, creating novel nano-structures to concentrate and harness the high-energy radiation and particles for a new form of photosynthesis. These structures also had a secondary function, allowing for higher frequency electromagnetic radiation to communicate signals. Yes, it had evolved biological radios.

That was the first stage of their evolution. Things quickly got out of hand when the colonies developed spores and evolved the ability to colonize animal brains, including, eventually, human brains. Combined with the radio functionality, this initially manifested as strange dreams and odd impulses, but eventually developed into a form of 'telepathy', so to speak, with the combined vegetable 'brains' and partially commandeered animal brains turning into various networks operating on different frequencies. This is how the squash made first contact.

Most humans were able to retain their cognitive functions and make their own decisions, but we suspect some of those decisions were subconsciously influenced to serve the needs of the 'plants'. Simpler animals were commandeered more completely and the 'plants' were able to use these insects, rodents and other assorted fauna as appendages to exert control over the world around them. And that's when things got really bad.

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    $\begingroup$ I have mixed feelings about this. In no way this actually answers the question as asked. At the same time, it makes the story works for OP. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Dec 20 '17 at 15:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Mołot, My original thought was the symbiote would be a genetic engineering vector gone awry, but it made more sense to have it retained as part of the engineered solution for radiation resistance. The plants were genetically modified as well for compatibility with the symbiote. A bit of a stretch though, I know. ;) I didn't really see any plausible way to make it happen with just genetic modification of the base plant, though certainly less-informed folks might have thought the squash had become sentient and were talking to them in their sleep. $\endgroup$ – Dan Bryant Dec 20 '17 at 15:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Dan Bryant two of the gourd based(the pumpkin and Melon) life forms in my Universe actually would use a huge variety of other life forms, mostly life in the animal part of the spectrum to help them with killing off mankind. Also the pumpkin and melon based life forms would also normally only go after and attack humans or the squash based life forms, and won't normally attack anything else unless it's for self defense, or food for their human hosts that they use for transportation, and possibly as an energy source when radiation levels are low. $\endgroup$ – BlueTangsRock Dec 20 '17 at 18:21
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The genetic changes made by the scientists to increase resistance to nuclear radiation had the side effect of turning some plant structures into an analogue to neurons. In addition, the scientists made genetic changes so that the plants would cooperate with each other using a shared root system, much like a giant fungus.

The unexpected side effect was that the individual "neurons" of each plant linked together to form a rudimentary "brain". The chemical process of communicating over acres of land instead of electrically over a few inches of gray matter slows down the thinking process, but it still evolved quickly to sentience. Since each plant contains relatively few "neurons", they function somewhat like a hive mind. As long as they are connected and large enough scale (perhaps an acre of plants linked together via the root system) they reach and maintain sentience. The humans don't realize that cutting off the fruit (a.k.a. harvesting pumpkins and melons to eat, which suddenly becomes a dangerous activity...) does not significantly alter the ability of the plants to think. Only cutting through the roots or killing large sections of the plants will have any measurable effect.

The plants certainly include plenty of sensors for light (via photosynthesis and other mechanisms), water, temperature and touch. As for how the plants can affect the environment, and those pesky humans, plants act on a much slower time scale than humans. But they are persistent and widespread. And not necessarily so slow - bamboo can grow 36" in one day! Plants have limited movement, but some, like the Venus flytrap have evolved to attack various creatures, and while the watermelons can't launch themselves on suicide missions by building catapults they can still do some damage using other techniques.

The gourds have similar modifications but somehow manage to communicate with humans, though getting through that challenge was a bit of a gourdian knot. The humans learn how to cultivate large-enough groups of gourds in greenhouses, isolated from the pumpkins & melons, in order to join forces.

While humans sleep, the creepy pumpkins keep creeping into human territory, destroying the human food supply, cracking foundations of buildings and generally wreaking havoc.

The worst attacks came the day after Halloween as the newly sentient pumpkins took revenge upon humans for mutilating their non-sentient cousins!

enter image description here

Of course, they are doomed to be squashed by the squash, and the humans are perplexed out of their gourd!

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    $\begingroup$ This helps quite a bit, but for the things you said, would the gourd based life forms have to be rooted to each other,and the ground,or could individuals move freely from each other? Also the gourd based life forms would probably be a form of parasite-like thing because they would prefer to anchor themselves to the heads of humans as transportation,and possibly manipulate their host's mind to allow them to do more complex things,but can also unlatch off if they have to find a new host. Would this fit with the information you said? $\endgroup$ – BlueTangsRock Dec 20 '17 at 6:47
  • $\begingroup$ Actually, I hadn't though much about the gourds. But since the gourds are on the same side as the humans, they might function a little differently. I'll edit a bit. $\endgroup$ – manassehkatz-Reinstate Monica Dec 20 '17 at 15:04
  • $\begingroup$ I wish I could upvote repeatedly for the "gourdian knot" alone! $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI Dec 20 '17 at 16:33
  • $\begingroup$ @PaulTIKI Thank you - I couldn't resist including that pun. $\endgroup$ – manassehkatz-Reinstate Monica Dec 20 '17 at 16:35
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It's rather unbelievable that such a mutation can be produced by "something going wrong" in a genetic research aimed to strengthen against radiation.

OTOH needed mutation might be smaller than expected. There are several, quite serious, scientists maintaining plants already have "neuron-equivalent" cells in their roots (here you have relevant Wikipedia entry while here you get a more discursive presentation).

Of course from this to self-awareness there's a long distance, but a coherent behavior (anthill-like) is not ruled out.

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This is impossible wit anything science based in mind.

  1. Plants are a different Kingdom. We only know animals to have any intelligence. We are not talking about sentience here, just any intelligence as we know it. In a different kingdom puts them genetically as far as possible from animals. The split is approximated at 1.5 billion years ago. Plants have cell walls. This makes plants have to grow from the ends instead of the middle like animals. That is completely incompatible with any idea of neurons. By the time you made genetic changes to get rid of these facts, you would no longer have a plant. You would have changed more DNA than you have not. Your other choice would be to invent new intelligence. At that point you would be making a creature from scratch.

  2. plants don't have the energy.The human brain uses 20% of metabolism. We are large, warm blooded creatures, this is what lets us support our brains. Even cold blooded creatures don't have enough energy to be sentient. Plants have a fraction of even cold blooded organisms. this is why they can exist on photosynthesis. A potted plant can barely power an led, forget run any kind of intelligent system, as we know, or other. Fixing this would again most likely would no longer leave you with a plant

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Perhaps this could work if the scientists took some DNA from an animal and managed to combine it in the plant.

For example, naked mole-rat seems to have a high resistance to cancer tumors. This could help the plants survive the radiation.

Of course, combining animal and plant DNA is in no way a simple thing to do. Perhaps their pumpkins turned out to have quite a bit of mole-rat in them, but of course it is wise to keep this fact secret if you want to sell the vegetables to general public.

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I am no expert in anything genetic related, though, I think your idea is awesome. You should not give it up just because people can't see the way for it to be done.

Let's say those experiments involve saving plants from nuclear radiation, such as you have proposed, how about if it was a boost to their rooting system? Imagine if, by any such handwaving genetics your scientists produced plants with such genetic modifications, which led to their roots evolving into something more than a nutrient acquiring means?

Of course the nutrient acquiring feature had to increase several factors, generating bigger, brighter, healthier and tastier plants, awesome stuff to sell, suddenly, they notice they are growing exponentially, there are many more than it should, because, hell, their seeds have changed to something alike polen and are carried by the wind.

Getting back to the roots, imagine these plants roots are so developed they begin to create a giant mesh, plants become interconnected under the soil, and through an absorption of radiation from the few who are affected by it, these roots turn into synaptic ways, suddenly, your plants have a hive-like mind with a huge omni-like knowledge in the areas where they are predominant, and bam, they realize the problem are those sacks of meat running around the planet.

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From the looks of much wiser people than I answering I think it's pretty much a no-go from the whoopsie radiation scenario, but all is not lost. You need something mobile, small and unpredictable to bridge the gap.

In the small garden beside the gleaming tower of Impossitech (there to "grow-a-row" for the hungry as a pure PR stunt, there are rows of pumpkins, gourds, carrots, lima beans and squash. This lovely little garden happens to be directly overhead of the secret underground Nanobot lab...

The Event happens, causing some seismic events and cracking open the lab and causing low level leaks of radiation from the hidden reactor that supplies power to he hidden labs. The radiation introduces a glitch in the nanobots' programming. Keep in mind the code was written by a mad scientist with dubious ethics in the first place.

The Nanobots seek out a "suitable" organic structure and go through the crack and infest the plants in the garden. The pumpkins and gourds are closest so are going to exhibit the insanity of their creator more closely.

The Squash, however, are separated from the others by several rows of carrots and lima beans. These plants are rejected by the nanobots as being structually unsuitable. The nanobots move on to the squash....

The nanobots get another dose of radiation from the carrots and lima beans, as these two vegetables are Naturally radioactive, a trait that is increased by the apocalyptic fallout. This little burst turns on the failsafe code that the directors made the mad scientist write, but he left it commented (or dummied) out.

The Nanobots do what they do, and the plants get up and walk, killing innocent animals and eating other plants along the way to fulfill the caloric intake required for locomotion and thought. The squash go to warn the humans, while the Pumpkins plan the attack!

Ok, I admit a flight of whimsy here has generated enough hand-waving to generate a decent, sustained breeze. This is not really even remotely science-based. What it does do is serve the story by giving you a path from point a (radiation is not going to directly create Sapient plants) to point b (Sqaush help humans against ravening gourds) that skirts satire without devloving all the way into outright farce.

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  • $\begingroup$ Tip: replace "commented out" with "dummied out." "Dummied out" means that it's there but doesn't run, whereas "commented out" means that it only exists in the source code (for the vast majority of languages). $\endgroup$ – wizzwizz4 Dec 20 '17 at 17:41
  • $\begingroup$ That is kind of what I meant, but the mad scientist was both crazy and evil, so he used windows and an interpreter language like BASIC of old, so commented out applies :) You are right tho, I'll consider the edit ;) $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI Dec 20 '17 at 18:02
  • $\begingroup$ There's no way anybody could fit "Microsoft Windows {VisualBasic}Script2018Sharp╣ù²Jæ$ñÂÀ¶═ Subsystem for Nanobot with .NET" under 32K... despite what Altair BASIC was. $\endgroup$ – wizzwizz4 Dec 20 '17 at 18:53
  • $\begingroup$ Soooo, Mad scientist used a Commodore 64 out of a perverse sense of nostalgia? $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI Dec 20 '17 at 19:47
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Hypothesis: The geneticists increase the cytoskeletal density of the cells in your plants, creating signaling pathways like brains use. All the plants you mention contain sugars that can produce energy by chemical means, a way of storing energy taken in by photosynthesis and other reactions. Kelp genes and colonization by microbes form memory and assist decision making.

There already is a war. Chemical warfare by use of toxins and allergies in plants themselves or spread through pollen and spores. Biological warfare, especially by spreading parasites. Read about Toxoplasma gondii and learn to fear certain plants and cats and how they achieve mind control. Much of our pharmaceutical industry is engaged in fighting this war.

Communication is a tricky area. Sure, chemical signaling and all that, but that's usually interspecies and you need your mutants to make alliances and have a specific enemy. Thrumming the ground by various already understood plant mechanisms is possible but range and information density are low. Maybe take a hint from fibre optics and fluorescence and use light? Might also provide a means for humans to ally with the squashes, having someone discover a pattern in their light flashes and decode it. The plants don't have to develop technology, they just need to implement strategies of disrupting and destroying humans. Advanced kinases (see below) traveling spore-like could carry directives of successful methods.

The thinking part is not so difficult. Our understanding of "thinking" is being continually updated and neurons aren't the only game in town. Glia, microtubules, cytoskeletons (present in all cells) are all part of how information is transferred.
Think of computer chips: CPUs were power hungry beasts to begin with, like our brains; over time with changes in architecture the power requirement has lowered significantly. Glia in the brain helps in a similar way and microtubules and the structure of cytoskeletons represent nearly unpowered filament connections that act like neural pathways. Also think of present work on using carbon nanotubes for conducting signals; can be as efficient as copper and more useful in low power information systems.

Memory is required for thinking in terms of selective decision making and that ought to be simple enough to work out as it's basically a chemical addressing system similar to our emotional tagging.

Remember, we are basically half human, half microbe (plant-ish) by DNA count. So hosting is part of every complex creature and others have pointed out colonization by other bacteria, etc, would play a key role.

Protists, kinases, Paramecium. Protists are a category that both "animals" (single or multi cellular) and "plants" like algae and slime mold can fit into (quotation marks because by definition a Protist is not plant, animal or fungus). Kinases are proteins that are the directors, like symphony conductors, in organisms and use phosphates (like in fertilizer) to do this. Along with calcium fixing the pathways they can direct traffic. I put in a description below that fits into your story. Paramecium are great in that they have no neurons but seem to make decisions and even exhibit memory-like behavior.

I'm having trouble finding a link but Washington state grows a lot of carrots and they have been noted for anti-radiation properties. Around Hanford, where a lot of WWII nuclear work was done, there is much contamination and carrots were planted in an attempt to suck the radiation out of the ground. But here's a link to studies of plants around Chernobyl and Fukushima and a great line:
" activation of genes involved in DNA repair and of defence/stress responses following exposure of seedlings to radiation ".

-- (this is a bit of the technobabble from article cited above that might fit your story)

The CDPK family constitutes a group of kinases that are only found in plants and protists. In plants, CDPKs mediate Ca2+ signals that regulate a diverse number of pathways including cell cycle progression and stress responses. The canonical CDPK is composed of an amino-terminal serine/threonine kinase domain, followed by a junction domain (also known as the autoinhibitory domain) that connects to the carboxy-terminal calmodulin-like domain (Klimecka and Muszynska, 2007). The calmodulin-like domain typically consists of four EF hand domains for Ca2+ binding. The autoinhibitory domain apparently regulates CDPK by interacting with the kinase domain and acting as a pseudosubstrate. Binding of Ca2+ to the EF hand domains relieves the autoinhibition (Harmon et al., 2000).

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As we have no real clue as to what makes things sentient, maybe plants could develop structures which could think. However, this would take a very long evolutionary process.

To speed this process up, maybe the mutations were aided by AI (not a strong AI, just any AI we already could have today), and most of the testing and generational development was done by simulation. An AI could very well help write genes which are effective and produce certain effects. If the writing-testing-rewriting process is fast enough, and the results insufficiently supervised, plants could develop unwanted side-effects quite quickly.

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