Parasitic Plants May Use RNA-Based 'Language' to Communicate

Aug 18, 2014 07:49 AM EDT | Matt Mercuro

A Virginia Tech researcher has found a potentially new form of plant communication, one of which that allows them to share a large amount of genetic information with one another.

Findings were published on August 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 an affiliated researcher with the Fralin Life Science Institute. "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.

Strangleweed plants wrap their tendrils around the stems of other plants, and then insert appendages known as haustoria to suck moisture and nutrients from their hosts.

For the Virginia Tech experiment with tomato plants, the researchers studied strangleweed's chemical exchanges with tomato plants, along with widely studied mustard plant known as Arabidopsis.

They determined that thousands of types of mRNA molecules were exchanged between the strangleweed plants and the hosts as the parasites tightened their grip, according to the release.

"We can only speculate about the importance of large-scale mRNA movement between individuals of different species," the researchers wrote. A wide variety of plants are known to be capable of mounting chemical defenses to fend off parasites - so one possibility is that the strangleweed may be telling the hosts to lower those defenses.

If that is the case, Westwood added mRNA could turn into an 'Achilles heel for parasites." Understanding the language could open up a new frontier for increasing crop yields around the world.

"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," Julie Scholes, a professor at the University of Sheffield, observed in Virginia Tech's news 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."

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