Is it English or is it French? Rest your guessing game as it’s not going to help anyway. According to a recent study, 'Terpene' is the world's most spoken language
Researchers led by the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW) demonstrated for the first time that two different types of micro-organisms, bacteria and fungi, use fragrances, known as terpenes, to hold conversations.
"We actually believe that terpenes are the most popular chemical medium on our planet to communicate through," they noted.
Group leader Paolina Garbeva explained, " Serratia, a soil bacterium, can 'smell' the fragrant terpenes produced by Fusarium, a plant pathogenic fungus. It responds by becoming motile and producing a terpene of its own."
The researchers established this by studying which genes were switched 'on' by the bacterium, which proteins it began to produce and which fragrance. Or, in more fancy terms: by using transcriptomic, proteomic and metabolomic techniques. "Such fragrances or volatile organic compounds are not just some waste product, they are instruments targeted specifically at long-distance communication between these minute fungi and bacteria."
But how widespread is this 'language of smells'? Pathogenic soil fungi such as Fusarium also have an effect aboveground, where they make plants sick. Can they communicate with those plants? Garbeva noted, "We have known for some time that plants and insects use terpenes to communicate with each other. But we've only just begun to realise that it's actually much wider. There is a much larger group of 'Terpene-speakers': micro-organisms."
Among fungi, protists, bacteria and even higher animals, Terpenes act as pheromones, chemical signals used by animals, which makes them a regular ingredient of perfumes. So it's likely that the language of terpenes forms a vast chemical communications network indeed.
Terpenes are by no means the only volatile organic compounds that are in for a good chat. The researchers found others as well: in the soil, for instance.
First author Ruth Schmidt added: "Organisms are multilingual, but 'Terpene' is the one that's used most often."