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Plants and Their Parasites May 'Talk' to One Another with RNA Communication

First Posted: Aug 15, 2014 11:36 AM EDT

Can plants talk? They can certainly communicate. A scientist has discovered a potentially new form of plant communication that allows them to share an extraordinary amount of genetic information with one another.

"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 Jim Westwood, the scientist who made the discovery, in a news release. "Now that we have found that they are sharing all this information, the next question is, 'What exactly are they telling each other?'"

In order to find out a bit more about plant communication, Westwood examined the relationship between a parasitic plant, dodder, and two host plants. Dodder can suck the moisture and nutrients out of host plants by using an appendage called a haustorium in order to penetrate the plant. Interestingly, though, this parasitic reaction results in a transfer of RNA between the two species.

After looking at this interaction more closely, Westwood found that thousands upon thousands of mRNA molecules were being exchanged between both plants. This created a type of "open dialogue" between the species. It's possible that this exchange may be the parasite "telling" the host plant to lower its defenses.

The findings could potentially help researchers better understand if other organisms, such as bacteria and fungi, also exchange information in this way. Not only that, but it could reveal new ways to combat parasitic plants.

"The beauty of this discovery is that this mRNA could be the Achilles heel for parasites," said Westwood. "This is all really exciting because there are so many potential implications surrounding this new information."

The findings are published in the journal Science.

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