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Tel Aviv University

Understanding Plants - Part I: What a Plant Knows

Tel Aviv University via Coursera


For centuries we have collectively marveled at plant diversity and form—from Charles Darwin’s early fascination with stems and flowers to Seymour Krelborn’s distorted doting in Little Shop of Horrors. This course intends to present an intriguing and scientifically valid look at how plants themselves experience the world—from the colors they see to the sensations they feel. Highlighting the latest research in genetics and more, we will delve into the inner lives of plants and draw parallels with the human senses to reveal that we have much more in common with sunflowers and oak trees than we may realize. We’ll learn how plants know up from down, how they know when a neighbor has been infested by a group of hungry beetles, and whether they appreciate the music you’ve been playing for them or if they’re just deaf to the sounds around them. We’ll explore definitions of memory and consciousness as they relate to plants in asking whether we can say that plants might even be aware of their surroundings. This highly interdisciplinary course meshes historical studies with cutting edge modern research and will be relevant to all humans who seek their place in nature.

This class has three main goals: 1. To introduce you to basic plant biology by exploring plant senses (sight, smell, hearing, touch, taste, balance). 2. To introduce you to biological research and the scientific method. 3. To get the student to question life in general and what defines us as humans.

Once you've taken this course, if you are interested in a more in-depth study of plants, check out my follow-up course, Fundamentals of Plant Biology (

In order to receive academic credit for this course you must successfully pass the academic exam on campus. For information on how to register for the academic exam –

Additionally, you can apply to certain degrees using the grades you received on the courses. Read more on this here –

Teachers interested in teaching this course in their class rooms are invited to explore our Academic High school program here –


  • Introduction
    • Welcome to "What a Plant Knows (and other things you didn't know about plants)". If you have not already, please review the Course Syllabus for general information about this course.
  • What a Plant Sees?
    • This week we start a systematic review of a plant's sensory systems by starting with plant responses to light. We will cover an overview of human vision, plant responses to light, Darwin's experiments showing plant responses to light, phototropism, phytochrome and flowering, and modern research on phototropism. In other words, this week we get into more advanced concepts in plant sensory biology. The last module is especially advanced, and will be clearer for those of you with a strong biology background. But do not fret, aside from very basic concepts, this module will NOT be included in the exam (you will not be responsible for understanding the intricacies of the experimental methods, etc.). If you have not already, please review the Course Syllabus for general information about this course.
  • What a Plant Smells?
    • This week we continue our systematic review of a plant's sensory systems by exploring responses to volatile chemicals (in other words, what a plant smells). We start with an overview of the plant cell, briefly review human olfaction (smell), and then explore how fruits know when to ripen. From there we go over three different experiments that explore plant responses to volatile chemicals and start exploring the controversial question, "Do plants communicate with each other?".
  • What a Plant Feels?
    • This week we continue our systematic review of a plant's sensory systems by exploring responses to tactile stimulation (in other words, what a plant feels). We start with an overview of the mechano-sensory system that differentiates between different tactile stimulations, briefly review the way electricity is used in neural communication, and then explore how the Venus flytrap knows when to close, and what powers the opening and closing of the Mimosa leaves. We'll learn how plants change their structure to cope with windy conditions, and go over some of the rather complex biology that is involved in the genetic response in plants to being touched. I'll let you know what I think of the question, Do plants feel pain? And then we'll try to understand whether plants hear, and if they do, which music they prefer.
  • How a Plant Knows Where it is?
    • This week we continue our systematic review of a plant's sensory systems by exploring the 6th sense - proprioception. We start with an overview of the proprioceptive system that allows us to keep our balance and to know where are body parts are in space. Theמ we will explore how plants know up from down, using both experiments from a few hundred years ago, and experiments conducted on the space station. We'll go over the structure of roots more in detail in order to understand where the cells are that sense gravity. We'll revisit phototropism, and learn what the chemical signal is in plants that allows them to respond to light and gravity. And lastly, we'll learn what makes a plant dance.
  • What a Plant Remembers?
    • This week we move beyond survey of a plant's sensory systems, and explore how plants retain, store and recall sensory information. In other words, we ask the questions, What do plants remember? We'll try to define what we mean by "memory" and briefly review different types of human memory. The we'll look at the short-term memory found in the Venus fly trap, and the long term morphogenic memory first described 50 years ago by the Czech scientist Rudolf Dostal. We'll have a guest lecture from Prof. Nir Ohad about epigenetics and the long-term memory of winter, and even the role of epigenetics in trans-generational memory.
  • The Aware Plant
    • This is the final week in our journey through a plant's sense of the world. This week's lecture has two separate parts. In the first part, we continue last week's discussion of a plant's ability to remember to a more theoretical discussion on the definition of memory and consciousness. This leads us to the question, "Are plants intelligent?". We'll hear what some of the students in this class think of intelligence before finishing with a quick examination of "intelligence", and end with my own take on a plant's, and our place, in the world. In the second part we'll go for a tour of my lab and see our plant growth facilities. I'll give you a brief overview of one of the projects in my lab, and you'll meet a few of the students doing the research. And in the end, you'll even get to meet Dr. Aviva Katz.

Taught by

Daniel Chamovitz and Aviva Katz


4.7 rating, based on 11 Class Central reviews

4.8 rating at Coursera based on 1776 ratings

Start your review of Understanding Plants - Part I: What a Plant Knows

  • I discovered this mooc while reading Chamovitz' book of the same title at the recommendation of a Twitter friend. I’ve lived a relatively plant-oblivious life – until about six months ago - so while I’d taken all these moocs on biology, physiology,…
  • E.A.D
    Presented by Professor Daniel Chamovitz, Ph.D., and Aviva Katz, Ph.D, both at Tel Aviv University, the course explored plant biology from the cellular level all the way to the function of the part of a plant. I had only a passing interest in this su…
  • Anonymous
    I started the class on a whim and became really interested. I usually dislike MOOCs with a talking head and slides, which this one, for the most part, is, but somehow Prof. Chamovitz kept my attention and was really enjoyable to listen to. He also is that rare presenter who knows how to use slides to illustrate a point with a picture or diagram.

    The videos are clear and moderately technical, but not so detailed that I got lost. It's worth noting that the class is about the science of plants. The exams are well suited to the level of the lectures.

    All in all a beautifully-designed class. L really enjoyed it and learned a lot.
  • A perfect course! This one went very high on my top-list (and this is cca my 90th completed MOOC, so this says a lot). The professor is excellent, has a great teaching style, and I like his jokes. The material is sometimes difficult, but is accompanied with lots of interactive videos, images and animations, so it becomes easy to follow. Quizzes are sometimes difficult, but you learn a lot while taking them. I've learned a lot of things about plants I couldn't have imagined, and it made me purse the topic furthers, so I cannot wait to enroll into part 2. Good job, University of Tel Aviv (loved the bloopers!).
  • Anonymous
    One of the very few moocs I enjoyed, and most importantly, that i finished. You can retake your test as much as you can, and since they are challenging, it really brings you to a point where you actually master the knowledge. The design is cool. The content is extremly interresting. The teacher is tallented. I took his second mooc, which was a bit more challenging. I recommand 100% this mooc (it sound extatic, but this is really a VERY good mooc)
  • A fascinating course, well presented. A little challenging in parts if one does not have a background in biology, but the more complicated parts were explained in great detail.
    Thoroughly enjoyable. I highly recommend this course.
  • Anonymous
    I love this guy he is a fantastic instructor. He makes me happy and really links the deep science to the common tongue with ease. Purely a hidden jem in the world.
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