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Aug 16

Parasitic Plants Can Exchange Genetic Material with Host Plants

If you heard there was a study involving talking parasitic plants you might be concerned that the musical Little Shop of Horrors has become a strange and grim reality.

While this is a fanciful idea that someday might get the Broadway treatment, scientists have discovered that some members of the Strangleweed species of parasitic plant can communicate with its host organism. It is not quite the same thing as a Venus fly-trap that sings about what it wants to eat but it is a more useful discovery.

 

The Cuscuta pentagona preys on familiar crop plants throughout the world. While it does belong to the order Plantae it acts more like a parasite: gripping onto other plants and using it as a means of retrieving resources like water and food.

This is not entirely rare, but something about how this plant uses its host is quite rare, indeed.

The Cuscata pentagona will actually share genetic information with its host plant. The two plants, then, can exchange messages—at least on a molecular level—in order to co-exist. A researcher with the Fralin Life Sciences Institute explains that the dodder plant (strangleweed) extends an appendage—called a haustorium—to the host plant and penetrates it. It can then use this channel to sap whatever it needs.

Of course, this discovery is marvelous but it is not just a natural wonder on its own. Scientists attest that this discovery could lead to more development in the understanding of how plants communicate. And this could aid technology in developing ways to manipulate the genetic material in plants for more beneficial use later.

Exactly what “beneficial use” they mean is still up for question. But the discovery will lead to more targeted research on how plants share information. Westwood continues that the previous understanding about plant RNA was that it is fragile and short-lived. This could prove otherwise.

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