Plants may use newly discovered molecular language to communicate

Aug 18, 2014

By Science Daily

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.

The 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 Aug. 15 in the journalScience.

“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. “Now that we have found that they are sharing all this information, the next question is, ‘What exactly are they telling each other?’.”

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 of the host plants, dodder uses an appendage called a haustorium to penetrate the plant. Westwood has previously broken 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.

3 comments on “Plants may use newly discovered molecular language to communicate

  • Here’s the original abstract:

    Movement of RNAs between cells of a single plant is well documented,
    but cross-species RNA transfer is largely unexplored. Cuscuta
    pentagona (dodder) is a parasitic plant that forms symplastic
    connections with its hosts and takes up host messenger RNAs (mRNAs).
    We sequenced transcriptomes of Cuscuta growing on Arabidopsis and
    tomato hosts to characterize mRNA transfer between species and found
    that mRNAs move in high numbers and in a bidirectional manner. The
    mobile transcripts represented thousands of different genes, and
    nearly half the expressed transcriptome of Arabidopsis was identified
    in Cuscuta. These findings demonstrate that parasitic plants can
    exchange large proportions of their transcriptomes with hosts,
    providing potential mechanisms for RNA-based interactions between
    species and horizontal gene transfer.

    What I find interesting is that mRNA transfer goes both ways. Perhaps it’s an information war, in which dodder tries to manipulate the host into self-sabotage, while the host tries to manipulate dodder into backing off or destroying itself. The notion that plants invented the information war before we did is too surprising to overlook, though it fits neatly into the common theme of nature coming up with inventions before human culture does. After all, if an information war occurred in nature, I wouldn’t have suspected plants.

    Then again, plants are often underestimated organisms, so that probably says more about my lack of experience in amateur botany than anything else.

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  • I worked with dodder some years ago. It is one of the weirdest organisms I have encountered. It was actually illegal to possess seeds from the plant, as a handful could devastate crops.

    Anyway, what i worked on was a bit pedestrian, but (I think) still unsolved. That is, how does the Dodder “zero in” on it’s prey plant? We worked and thought and experimented in all sorts of (we thought) clever ways, but, consistently, the Dodder would throw up a vine that spun (in time lapse it is phenomenal) and grew and spun in the air. Then, it would lock onto a target and grow straight for it.

    Mind you, it did not head straight for woody stemmed plants or even fancy straws with tiny pores that had been loaded with ground up arabidopsis or other suitable prey. It was not a matter of sun/shadow. It was not a matter of gas exchange (we had a greenhouse set up with fans that caused gasses to flow directionally). The reports at the time all pointed towards volatiles, however, we could not validate this in our lab.

    It was maddening because the damn plant was way way “smarter” than me!!! I still periodically look to see if the mystery has been solved. Where’s Scooby Doo when you need him?

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