In recent years, we’ve learned more and more about the ways plants communicate — Quanta Magazine‘s story “The Secret Language of Plants” is a good starting point — and new research from a Virginia Tech scientist gives us some insight into plant communication that could be, down the road, of great help to farmers. It’s also a little bit gruesome, at least as far as plants talking to each other goes: It’s all about how parasitic plants talk to their hosts.
It’s a true villain of the plant world.
Jim Westwood, a professor of plant pathology, physiology and weed science (!) at Virginia Tech, studied the parasitic dodder as it interacted (read: strangled) two plants, one a tomato plant and one an Arabidopsis (the latter is a wild variety of brassica, in the same family as kale, cabbage and broccoli, and is frequently used in studies like this). Dodder, which also boasts the colorful names “devil’s guts,” “strangleweed” and “witch’s hair,” is a vine-looking plant that jabs its roots, called haustoria, into its host plant and sucks it dry of nutrients.
Dodder is a significant problem for many farmers; it often attacks crops like alfalfa, flax and potatoes, and as it sips nutrients, the host plant grows weaker and weaker. The host plant may die from lack of nutrients, or it may just grow weak enough to be felled by some other virus (sort of the same way immunodeficiency works in humans). Or, crazily, dodder can also spread diseases from one plant to another. It’s a true villain of the plant world.
Westwood’s research looked into what happens when dodder sticks its haustoria into its host, and found something that few had even suspected: The plants are communicating by transferring RNA. Specifically, it’s sending mRNA, or messenger RNA, which was previously thought to be too delicate and short-lived to survive a transfer from one plant to another. But, Westwood’s research proves that the dodder sends mRNA to its host, which could be used to command the host to do all kinds of things: lower its defenses, say.
Because parasitic plants like dodder are a real problem for crops, the study has implications beyond “Wow, plants talk in crazy ways.” It’s entirely possible that understanding the relationship between parasite and host could allow scientists in the future to figure out a way to prevent parasitic plants from causing so much havoc in the fields.
(Image via Flickr user Dendroica)