Parasitic Plants Steal RNA, Spy on Their Hosts

By Andrew Moseman | August 5, 2008 2:57 pm

dodderImagine you’re a parasitic vine (not a pleasant image, sorry)—you need to flower at in order to reproduce, but you want to do it at just the right time, before your host plant dies. So how do you know when that will be? If you’re a dodder plant, you might tap into your host’s communication system.

The dodder is a clever parasite that looks like little more than a long string, but it can actually sniff out and latch onto tomatoes, alfalfa, and carrots. Neelima Sinha and her team at the University of California, Davis, had known for years that RNA transfer between the parasitic dodder and its host could happen. But in their new study they found RNA from the host tomato had not only entered the dodder plant, but also moved a full foot away from where the parasite tapped into its host. So perhaps the RNA can move all throughout the dodder vine.


Because RNA can be a messenger molecule, Sinha says, the finding suggests that the dodder gathers information about the host plant by stealing its RNA. With the information it acquires, the dodder could potentially synch up its life cycle with its host’s.

But Sinha, who has studied parasitic plants like the dodder and its relatives in order to find their weaknesses, wants to turn the plants’ little tricks against them. The researchers hope to engineer the host’s RNA so that it kills or damages the parasite, rather than brining it valuable information.

If it works, someday the dodder and other parasitic plants won’t have to worry about killing the messenger—it could kill them.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Bogdan

For a photo gallery of peculiar parasites, click here:

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