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Plants may use mol­e­c­u­lar lan­guage to com­mu­ni­cate with each other

pub­lished 18 August 2014 | mod­i­fied 18 August 2014

A Vir­ginia Tech sci­en­tist has dis­cov­ered a poten­tially new form of plant com­mu­ni­ca­tion, one that allows them to share an extra­or­di­nary amount of genetic infor­ma­tion with one another.

Dodder attackThe find­ing by Jim West­wood, a pro­fes­sor of plant pathol­ogy, phys­i­ol­ogy, and weed sci­ence in the Col­lege of Agri­cul­ture and Life Sci­ences, throws open the door to a new arena of sci­ence that explores how plants com­mu­ni­cate with each other on a mol­e­c­u­lar level. It also gives sci­en­tists new insight into ways to fight par­a­sitic weeds that wreak havoc on food crops in some of the poor­est parts of the world. His find­ings were pub­lished on 15 August in the jour­nal Science.

Now that we have found that they are shar­ing all this infor­ma­tion, the next ques­tion is, ‘What exactly are they telling each other?’.
Jim West­wood, pro­fes­sor of plant pathol­ogy, phys­i­ol­ogy, and weed sci­ence, Col­lege of Agri­cul­ture and Life Sci­ences, Vir­ginia Tech »

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.

West­wood exam­ined the rela­tion­ship between a par­a­sitic plant, dod­der, and two host plants, Ara­bidop­sis and toma­toes. In order to suck the mois­ture and nutri­ents out the host plants, dod­der uses an appendage called a haus­to­rium to pen­e­trate the plant. West­wood pre­vi­ously broke new ground when he found that dur­ing this par­a­sitic inter­ac­tion, there is a trans­port of RNA between the two species. RNA trans­lates infor­ma­tion passed down from DNA, which is an organism’s blueprint.

Par­a­sitic Plant time lapse:

(Source: Vir­gini­at­ech on Vimeo)

His new work expands this scope of this exchange and exam­ines the mRNA, or mes­sen­ger RNA, which sends mes­sages within cells telling them which actions to take, such as which pro­teins to code. It was thought that mRNA was very frag­ile and short-​lived, so trans­fer­ring it between species was unimag­in­able. But West­wood found that dur­ing this par­a­sitic rela­tion­ship, thou­sands upon thou­sands of mRNA mol­e­cules were being exchanged between both plants, cre­at­ing this open dia­logue between the species that allows them to freely communicate.

Through this exchange, the par­a­sitic plants may be dic­tat­ing what the host plant should do, such as low­er­ing its defenses so that the par­a­sitic plant can more eas­ily attack it. Westwood’s next project is aimed at find­ing out exactly what the mRNA are say­ing. His work is spon­sored by the National Sci­ence Foundation.

Using this new­found infor­ma­tion, sci­en­tists can now exam­ine if other organ­isms such a bac­te­ria and fungi also exchange infor­ma­tion in a sim­i­lar fash­ion. His find­ing could also help solve issues of food scarcity. “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,” said Julie Scholes, a pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Sheffield, U.K., who is famil­iar with Westwood’s work but was not part of this project. “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.”

West­wood said that while his find­ing is fas­ci­nat­ing, how this is applied will be equally as inter­est­ing. “The beauty of this dis­cov­ery is that this mRNA could be the Achilles heel for par­a­sites,” West­wood said. “This is all really excit­ing because there are so many poten­tial impli­ca­tions sur­round­ing this new information.”

(Source: Vir­ginia Tech Uni­ver­sity news release, 15.08.2014)

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