Parasitic plants might have a secret language


When parasitic plants such as dodder attack plants like the sugar beet shown here, there is a vast exchange of genetic information between the plants. (Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences)

A vampire-like parasitic plant could reveal new secrets of plant communication. According to a study published Thursday in Science, species of the strangleweed plant are able to share genetic information in the form of messenger RNA molecules (mRNA) with the plants they invade. It's possible that this RNA shuffling is allowing for communication between the parasite and the host, and if we crack their codes we could exploit them to protect crops.

The strangleweed was observed to share a surprising amount of genetic material with the host plant, which the study authors said was unexpected.  "It’s surprising for a number of reasons," James Westwood, a plant physiologist at Virginia Tech and a co-author of the study, told The Verge, "The first being that if you think of a parasite as truly being a parasite, you wouldn’t expect to see movement of genetic material into the host — just the parasite sucking nutrients from the host."

That much movement in RNA molecules suggests that the parasite is sending devious cellular messages to the plants it targets, the study authors said. The foreign RNA could serve as a sort of genetic double-agent, giving the host plant instructions that weaken it to the parasite's advances. Meanwhile, the parasite continues to receive RNA as well as release it, allowing it to adapt to the target's weaknesses.

It's possible that the RNA molecules are going back and forth for some other reason. But if this hypothesis proves correct, plants could be engineered with defenses against it. Instead of chemical pesticides to kill off strangleweed, farmers could just plant crops with anti-parasite RNA messages built-in.

The mRNA discovery could prove to be the parasite's Achilles' heel, Westwood said in a statement.

Rachel Feltman runs The Post's Speaking of Science blog.
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Rachel Feltman · August 14