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RNA exchange by vampire-like plant strangleweed inspires scientists

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A parasitic plant called Cuscuta Pentagona or strangleweed could be the botanical equivalent of Count Dracula as it has the ability to siphon out nutrients from the host, as well as inject its own genetic matter!

The study entitled "Genomic-scale exchange of mRNA between a parasitic plant and its hosts" reveals that parasitic plants deploy a RNA-based "language" for communication with the victim plant. Researchers opine that it is likely done to get the host plant to lower its defenses. The study has been co-authored by Jim Westwood, a plant scientist at Virginia Tech.

The researchers studied how the parasitic plant parasitized tomatoes and Arabidopsis. The vampire-like plant strangleweed or dodder uses a snakelike vine to coil around the victim plant; it then makes lesions into the host plants' stem with appendages called "haustoria" and then sucks out the nutrients.

The researchers also observed the movement of RNA called messenger RNA (mRNA) for the purpose of the study. They found that mRNA of strangleweed was moving on the Arabidopsis and tomatoes as well as from the victim plants to the host. Nearly 50 percent of Arabidopsis' mRNA was found on the strangleweed and 25 percent of strangleweed's mRNA was found on the Arabidopsis. By comparison, a smaller amount of mRNA flow was observed between the tomatoes and the strangleweed.

"The discovery of this novel form of inter-organism communication shows that this is happening a lot more than anyone previously realized," says Westwood. "Now that we have found that they are sharing all this information, the next question is, 'What exactly are they telling each other?'"

The study not only sheds light on how plants communicate with each other, but also gives scientists an insight into how they can devise ways to curb the havoc wreaked on food crops by parasitic plants.

"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," said Julie Scholes, a professor at the University of Sheffield, U.K.

The findings of the study are intriguing; however, additional research is required to understand in depth how plants communicate. However, the study shows that mRNA may be the Achilles heel for parasites.

The study has been published in the journal Science.

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