Parasitic Plants Use RNA-Based "Language" to Communicate With Victims

Aug 15, 2014 11:20 AM EDT | Matt Mercuro

A Virginia Tech researcher has discovered a new form of plant communication, one of which allows them to share a large amount of genetic information with one another, according to a study published this week.

The finding was made by Jim Westwood, a professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, according to a Virginia Tech press release. The discovery opens a door to a new arena of science that explores how plants are able to communicate with one another on a molecular level.

It also provides scientists a chance to fight parasitic weeds that cause havoc on food crops in some of the poorest locations around the world.

Findings were published on Aug. 15 in the journal Science.

"The discovery of this novel form of inter-organism communication shows that this is happening a lot more than any one has previously realized," said Westwood, who is a researcher with the Fralin Life Science Institute, according to the release. "Now that we have found that they are sharing all this information, the next question is, 'What exactly are they telling each other?'."

For his study, Westwood analyzed the relationship between a parasitic plant, dodder, and two host plants, Arabidopsis and tomatoes. Dodder uses an appendage called a haustorium to penetrate the plant in order to suck out moisture and nutrients.

Previously, Westwood discovered that during this interaction there is a transport of RNA between the two species. RNA translates information passed down from DNA, according to the release.

His new study expands the scope of this exchange, which sends messages within cells telling them which actions to take. It was previously believed that mRNA was short-lived and fragile, and that transferring it between species wasn't possible.

"Parasitic plants such as witchweed and broomrape are serious problems for legumes and other crops that help feed some of the poorest regions in Africa and elsewhere," said Julie Scholes, a professor at the University of Sheffield, U.K., who is familiar with Westwood's work, according to the release. "In addition to shedding new light on host-parasite communication, Westwood's findings have exciting implications for the design of novel control strategies based on disrupting the mRNA information that the parasite uses to reprogram the host."

Westwood discovered that during this relationship, thousands of mRNA molecules were being exchanged between both plants, thus creating open dialogue between the species that allows them to communicate.

Plants may be dictating what the host plant should do through this exchange, like lowering its defenses, so that the plant can easily attack it.

The researcher's next project is aimed at finding out what the mRNA are saying exactly,

"The beauty of this discovery is that this mRNA could be the Achilles hill for parasites," Westwood said, according to the VT release. "This is all really exciting because there are so many potential implications surrounding this new information."

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