A parasitic plant could reveal new secrets of plant communication. According to a study published Thursday in Science, species of the strangleweed plant are able to share genetic information in the form of messenger RNA molecules (mRNA) with the plants they invade according to the Washington Post. It may be feasible that this RNA shuffling is allowing for communication between the parasite and the host, and if we are able to decipher their codes, we could exploit them to protect crops.
The strangleweed was chosen for observation to share a surprising amount of genetic material with the host plant, which study authors weren’t expecting. “It’s surprising for a number of reasons,” James Westwood, a plant physiologist at Virginia Tech and a co-author of the study, told The Verge, “The first being that if you think of a parasite as truly being a parasite, you wouldn’t expect to see movement of genetic material into the host — just the parasite sucking nutrients from the host.”
The large amount of movement in RNA molecules suggest that the parasite is sending devious cellular messages to the plants it targets, the study authors said. The foreign RNA could serve as a genetic double-agent, feeding the host plant instructions that in turn weaken it to the parasite’s advances. Meanwhile, the parasite continues to receive RNA as well as release it, allowing it to adjust to the target’s weaknesses.
“The beauty of this discovery is that this mRNA could be the Achilles hill for parasites,” Westwood said in a statement. “This is all really exciting because there are so many potential implications surrounding this new information.”
It is possible that the RNA molecules are going back and forth for another reason. But if this hypothesis is indeed correct, plants could be engineered with defenses against it. Instead of chemical pesticides to kill strangleweed, farmers could instead just plant crops with anti-parasite RNA messages built-in.
Parasitic Plant Could Reveal New Secrets of Plant Communication