Did you ever try talking to your plants because someone told you that helps them grow? Didn’t talk back much, did they? That’s because you were talking with your mouth.

A Virginia Tech scientist has found that some plants actually have very detailed communications with other plants they come in contact with. The difference is these “conversations” take the form of a rapid exchange of molecules sharing genetic material.

Jim Westwood, a professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech, studied the interaction between the parasitic plant dodder and two hosts, Arabidopsis and tomatoes. Dodder wants to suck the life-sustaining nutrients and water out of the host plants, and it pierces the plants with an appendage called a haustorium to do that.

It’s what come next that is unexpected. Both plants begin furiously sharing genetic information. Thousand of mRNA, or messenger RNA, molecules flow between the two plants. Messenger RNA sends cells messages with instructions on which actions to take.

It’s possible that this exchange is the parasitic plant’s attempt to tell the host plant to lower its defenses so it can be more easily attacked. Westwood is still investigating a way to translate the conversation.

Finding out how to understand what the parasitic plants are saying, and perhaps how to shut them up, could be a huge boon to agriculture. Parasitic plants are responsible for significant crop losses, especially in poor regions.

“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.”

Image of dodder at work via Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

[Source: Virginia Tech]

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