Catherine StewartParasites talk to their hosts


Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

New research shows that plants and their parasites communicate by sharing an extraordinary amount of genetic material, which could lead to a new way to fight parasitic weeds.

Jim Westwood, professor of plant pathology at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech has published new research in the journal Science, studied how dodder, a parasitic weed, attacks tomato plants and Arabidopsis by using a penetrative appendage called a haustorium to suck out the host plant’s nutrients.

Westwood’s work found that thousands of mRNA (messanager RNA) molecules pass between the host and its parasite via the haustoria. RNA translates information passed down from DNA, which is an organism’s blueprint. Westwood says:

“The beauty of this discovery is that this mRNA could be the Achilles heel for parasites. This is all really exciting because there are so many potential implications surrounding this new information.”

The research postulates that this RNA exchange could be instructing the host plant to lower its defences to the parasite allowing a successful attack. Scientists will now start looking at whether fungi and bacteria also exchange similar information as they attack plants.

Parasitic plants are a serious pest of many crop plants, especially in Africa where parasites such as broomrape and witchweed attack legume crops. If the plant-parasite communication can be disrupted, then there will be greater food security.

Click here to watch a video of how dodder attacks a tomato plant.

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Catherine Stewart

About Catherine Stewart

Award-winning garden journalist, blogger and photographer; writer for garden magazines and co-author of 'Waterwise Gardening'; landscape designer turned landscape design judge and critic; compulsive networker and lover of generally putting fingers in lots of pies. Particularly mud pies. Original creator of GardenDrum. South Coast NSW.

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