Plants May Use Secret Language

A new form of plant communication, which allows plants to share genetic information with one another, may have been discovered by a Virginia Tech scientist. Jim Westwood, a professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science, studied the relationship between the parasitic dodder plant and two host plants, Arabidopsis and tomatoes. The dodder plant uses an appendage called a haustorium to penetrate the host plant and suck moisture and nutrients out of it. During this relationship, there is a transport of RNA (information passed down from DNA) between the two species. Westwood found that during this exchange, thousands of mRNA (messenger RNA, which tells cells what to do) molecules were also being exchanged, creating an open dialogue and allowing the plants to freely communicate. For the parasite, this is likely a useful way of telling the host plant to lower its defenses. The discovery of the mRNA exchange could also give scientists a way to combat parasitic weeds that destroy crops in poor parts of the world. The findings were published Friday in the journal Science.