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These Parasitic Plants Steal The Host Genes To Attack

Parasitic plants steal their victims’ genes as a mode of attack, says a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Broomrape, a parasitic plant, growing from grindella, held by Claude dePamphilis, professor of biology in Penn State's Eberly College of Science. Photo credits: Bill Zimmerman.

Broomrape, a parasitic plant, growing from grindella, held by Claude dePamphilis, professor of biology in Penn State’s Eberly College of Science. Photo credits: Bill Zimmerman.

Parasitism is one of the many interactions between organisms in nature. A parasite is, basically, a living thing requiring the body of another living thing (the host) to function and survive. Science has revealed the interesting ways in which parasitic organisms do so: from simple to complex methods, and sometimes even very, very dark ways are employed by parasites for their survival. An example of such a peculiar “modus operandi” has been recently documented in a parasitic weed called broomrape which is commonly known to be highly devastating to agricultural weeds; it steals the genes of its hosts (other plants) and turns the latter’s system against them.

This non-sexual ‘relocation’ of genes is called horizontal gene transfer (HGT). Following the HGT, the genes would become functional inside the broomrape. The gene transfer is said to enhance the ability of the parasite to invade its host by dismantling the latter’s defense systems against it. Furthermore, it might also be shielding the parasite from possible infections.

The broomrape attaches itself to the host through its roots, and then it extracts water, important nutrients, and DNA and RNA from the host.

“So, they are stealing genes from their host plants, incorporating them into the genome and then turning those genes back around, very often, as a weapon against the host,” says study author, Claude dePamphilis.

These findings might be helpful in the field of agriculture. If understood better, the control of harmful parasitic plants can, hopefully, be done more effectively.

“The HGT discovery is really part of our effort to try to better understand how parasitic plants work and how we can better control them. Our hope is that we can use this information to find the best strategies to generate, or breed, resistant host plants,” says dePamphilis.

HGT is normally found in less complex species of organisms like bacteria. This instance of HGT is explained as being possible thanks to the closeness of the parasite to the host plants, allowing for the movement of intact genes from host to parasite’s genome.

“Parasitic plants seem to have a far greater rate of horizontal gene transfer than non-parasitic plants and we think this is because of their very intimate connection they have with their host,” says dePamphilis.

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