BY CHARLES DARWIN, M.A., F.R.S.,
…The smallness of the doses of the nitrate, and more especially of the phosphate of ammonia, which cause the tentacles of immersed leaves to be inflected, is perhaps the most remarkable fact recorded in this volume. When we see that much less than the millionth* of a grain of the phosphate, absorbed by a gland of one of the exterior tentacles, causes it to bend, it may be thought that the effects of the solution on the glands of the disc have been overlooked; namely, the transmission of a motor impulse from them to the exterior tentacles. No doubt the movements of the latter are thus aided; but the aid thus rendered must be insignificant; for we know that a drop containing as much as the 1/3840 of a grain placed on the disc is only just able to cause the outer tentacles of a highly sensitive leaf to bend. It is cer-
* It is scarcely possible to realise what a million means. The best illustration which I have met with is that given by Mr. Croll, who says, “Take a narrow strip of paper 83 ft. 4 in. in length, and stretch it along the wall of a large hall; then mark off at one end the tenth of an inch. This tenth will represent a hundred, and the entire strip a million.
tainly a most surprising fact that the 1/19760000 of a grain, or in round numbers the one-twenty-millionth of a grain (.0000033 mg.), of the phosphate should affect any plant, or indeed any animal; and as this salt contains 35.33 per cent. of water of crystallisation, the efficient elements are reduced to 1/30555126 of a grain, or in round numbers to one-thirty-millionth of a grain (.00000216 mg.). The solution, moreover, in these experiments was diluted in the proportion of one part of the salt to 2,187,500 of water, or one grain to 5000 oz. The reader will perhaps best realise this degree of dilution by remembering that 5000 oz. would more than fill a 31-gallon cask; and that to this large body of water one grain of the salt was added; only half a drachm, or thirty minims, of the solution being poured over a leaf. Yet this amount sufficed to cause the inflection of almost every tentacle, and often of the blade of the leaf.
I am well aware that this statement will at first appear incredible to almost everyone. Drosera is far from rivalling the power of the spectroscope, but it can detect, as shown by the movements of its leaves, a very much smaller quantity of the phosphate of ammonia than the most skilful chemist can of any substance.* My results were for a long time incredible
* When my first observations were made on the nitrate of ammonia, fourteen years ago, the powers of the spectroscope had not been discovered; and I felt all the greater interest in the then unrivalled powers of Drosera. Now the spectroscope has altogether beaten Drosera; for according to Bunsen and Kirchhoff probably less than one 1/200000000 of a grain of sodium can be thus detected (see Balfour Stewart, ‘Treatise on Heat,’ 2nd edit. 1871, p. 228). With respect to ordinary chemical tests, I gather from Dr. Alfred Taylor’s work on ‘Poisons’ that about 1/4000 of a grain of arsenic, 1/4400 of a grain of prussic acid, 1/1400 of iodine, and 1/2000 of tartarised antimony, can be detected; but the power of detection depends much on the solutions under trial not being extremely weak.
even to myself, and I anxiously sought for every source of error. The salt was in some cases weighed for me by a chemist in an excellent balance; and fresh water was measured many times with care. The observations were repeated during several years. Two of my sons, who were as incredulous as myself, compared several lots of leaves simultaneously immersed in the weaker solutions and in water, and declared that there could be no doubt about the difference in their appearance. I hope that some one may hereafter be induced to repeat my experiments; in this case he should select young and vigorous leaves, with the glands surrounded by abundant secretion. The leaves should be carefully cut off and laid gently in watch-glasses, and a measured quantity of the solution and of water poured over each. The water used must be as absolutely pure as it can be made. It is to be especially observed that the experiments with the weaker solutions ought to be tried after several days of very warm weather. Those with the weakest solutions should be made on plants which have been kept for a considerable time in a warm greenhouse, or cool hothouse; but this is by no means necessary for trials with solutions of moderate strength.
I beg the reader to observe that the sensitiveness or irritability of the tentacles was ascertained by three different methods-indirectly by drops placed on the disc, directly by drops applied to the glands of the outer tentacles, and by the immersion of whole leaves; and it was found by these three methods that the nitrate was more powerful than the carbonate, and the phosphate much more powerful than the nitrate; this result being intelligible from the difference in the amount of nitrogen in the first two salts, and from the presence of phosphorus in the third. It may aid the
reader’s faith to turn to the experiments with a solution of one grain of the phosphate to 1000 oz. of water, and he will there find decisive evidence that the one-four-millionth of a grain is sufficient to cause the inflection of a single tentacle. There is, therefore, nothing very improbable in the fifth of this weight, or the one-twenty-millionth of a grain, acting on the tentacle of a highly sensitive leaf. Again, two of the leaves in the solution of one grain to 3000 oz., and three of the leaves in the solution of one grain to 5000 oz., were affected, not only far more than the leaves tried at the same time in water, but incomparably more than any five leaves which can be picked out of the 173 observed by me at different times in water.
There is nothing remarkable in the mere fact of the one-twenty-millionth of a grain of the phosphate, dissolved in above two-million times its weight of water, being absorbed by a gland. All physiologists admit that the roots of plants absorb the salts of ammonia brought to them by the rain; and fourteen gallons of rain-water contain* a grain of ammonia, therefore only a little more than twice as much as in the weakest solution employed by me. The fact which appears truly wonderful is, that the one-twenty-millionth of a grain of the phosphate of ammonia (including less than the one-thirty-millionth of efficient matter), when absorbed by a gland, should induce some change in it, which leads to a motor impulse being transmitted down the whole length of the tentacle, causing the basal part to bend, often through an angle of above 180 degrees.
Astonishing as is this result, there is no sound reason
* Miller’s ‘Elements of Chemistry,’ part ii. p. 107, 3rd edit. 1864.
why we should reject it as incredible. Prof. Donders, of Utrecht, informs me that from experiments formerly made by him and Dr. De Ruyter, he inferred that less than the one-millionth of a grain of sulphate of atropine, in an extremely diluted state, if applied directly to the iris of a dog, paralyses the muscles of this organ. But, in fact, every time that we perceive an odour, we have evidence that infinitely smaller particles act on our nerves. When a dog stands a quarter of a mile to leeward of a deer or other animal, and perceives its presence, the odorous particles produce some change in the olfactory nerves; yet these particles must be infinitely smaller* than those of the phosphate of ammonia weighing the one-twenty-millionth of a grain. These nerves then transmit some influence to the brain of the dog, which leads to action on its part. With Drosera, the really marvellous fact is, that a plant without any specialised nervous system should be affected by such minute particles; but we have no grounds for assuming that other tissues could not be rendered as exquisitely susceptible to impressions from without if this were beneficial to the organism, as is the nervous system of the higher animals.
* My son, George Darwin, has calculated for me the diameter of a sphere of phosphate of ammonia (specific gravity 1.678), weighing the one-twenty-millionth of a grain, and finds it to be 1/1644 of an inch. Now, Dr. Klein informs me that the smallest Micrococci, which are distinctly discernible under a power of 800 diameters, are estimated to be from .0002 to .0005 of a millimetre-that is, from 1/50800 to 1/127000 of an inch-in diameter. Therefore, an object between 1/31 and 1/77 of the size of a sphere of the phosphate of ammonia of the above weight can be seen under a high power; and no one supposes that odorous particles, such as those emitted from the deer in the above illustration, could be seen under any power of the microscope.