Plants may use newly discovered language to communicate

August 14, 2014
When parasitic plants such as dodder attack plants like the sugar beet shown here, there is a vast exchange of genetic information between the plants, a Virginia Tech researcher has discovered. Credit: Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sceinces

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 that wreak havoc on food crops in some of the poorest parts of the world.

His findings were published on Aug. 15 in the journal Science.

"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 , 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.

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This time-lapse video shows how the parasitic plant dodder attacks tomatoes. But beyond stealing nutrients from the host plants, a Virginia Tech researcher has discovered that the two plants also share vast amounts of genetic information during the exchange. Credit: Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

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 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.

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 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 hill for parasites," Westwood said. "This is all really exciting because there are so many potential implications surrounding this new information."

Explore further: Hitting back at 'wiretapping' parasite

More information: "Genomic-scale exchange of mRNA between a parasitic plant and its hosts," by G. Kim et al. Science, … 1126/science.1253122

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5 / 5 (4) Aug 14, 2014
How about being a little more honorable? You find a novel communication pathway between unique organisms on a beautiful planet and the first thing that jumps to mind is "Now we can eradicate one of them"

Why not study it more and find a way to limit the damage of the parasite while still allowing a natural relationship between the two plants. Brute force and eradication are the problems with our society, we are so blind that we don't see how everything is connected and there are probably even more forms of communication between the vast amount of life on Earth. Stop with the "well now we know everything" bullshit because 2 seconds later you could discover something that is 10 times as important as what you just discovered.

Glad people are still learning I guess. Just wish they could try harder to grasp the whole picture instead of thinking in one-dimensional pathways.
5 / 5 (2) Aug 14, 2014
It was thought that mRNA was very fragile and short-lived, so transferring it between species was unimaginable.

I'll admit I've never really given extracellular mRNA much thought but who would make such a statement? It's absurd. Ahem, extracellular miRNA and exosomes... Sure mRNA is fragile and short lived in the presence of RNAses and ionizing radiation. But unimaginable!? Really?
1 / 5 (4) Aug 16, 2014
Doesn't extracellular mRNA alter the microRNA/messenger RNA balance in both plants? If so, is the result likely to be amino acid substitutions that benefit the stability of the genome in the plant that sucks the life out of the other?

If so, the outcome of the parasitic process might then be considered in the context of nutrient stress and a form of social stress between the two plant species.

That places the outcome into the context of biophysically-constrained interactions in thermodynamic cycles of protein biosythesis and degradation, which are controlled by nutrient uptake and organism-level thermoregulation.

The survivor is the plant or the animal that is best able to fine-tune its conserved molecular mechanisms of epigenetically-effected nutrient-dependent 'behavior.'

However, the plants are not behaving in any previously recognized context, which may make it difficult to support the claim that the ecology of epigenetically-effected mRNA exchanges affects their behavior.
not rated yet Aug 17, 2014
Well... Right, they do exchange genetic information. But why should we call this communication?

And why should we call this something even more specific and of a higher order, namely "talking to each other"?

It is true that we often use such expressions as "a computer talks to another". But that is only a metaphor. It is a use of human terms similar to other such uses, for instance "the arms and feet of the robot". Or, a computer language. Such a use doesn't transform the machines into humans.

So, saying that two plants are communicating is already using human terms to describe a phenomenon. But saying that they are talking to each other, takes some more steps and makes a sensational title, but doesn't makes the plants _really_ talk to each other.

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