Animals require rapid, long-range molecular signaling networks to integrate sensing and response throughout their bodies. The amino acid glutamate acts as an excitatory neurotransmitter in the vertebrate central nervous system, facilitating long-range information exchange via activation of glutamate receptor channels. Similarly, plants sense local signals, such as herbivore attack, and transmit this information throughout the plant body to rapidly activate defense responses in undamaged parts. Here we show that glutamate is a wound signal in plants. Ion channels of the GLUTAMATE RECEPTOR–LIKE family act as sensors that convert this signal into an increase in intracellular calcium ion concentration that propagates to distant organs, where defense responses are then induced.