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Zombie Plants: Why Do Plants Get Infected By Parasites?

First Posted: Oct 19, 2015 10:15 AM EDT
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Researchers are investigating how parasites interfere with the development of plants in some of the most tragic ways, by inflicting a 'zombie' effect on them, according to a recent study at Friedrich Schiller University Jena, in Germany.

Luminous flowering plants are usually surrounded by insects, where both parties benefit from a mutual encounter. Insects thrive on delicious nectar and pollen, while the flowers are being pollinated, which is vital for their survival. However, some of these insects causes harm to the plants that they can never recover from, researchers revealed in a news release.

"The insects transmit bacteria, so-called phytoplasmas, which destroy the life cycle of the plants," said Prof. Dr. Günter Theissen from Friedrich Schiller University Jena.

Instead of blossoming, the affected plant specimens form useless leaf structures which prevents sexual reproduction.

"These plants become the living dead. Eventually they only serve the spread of the bacteria," Theissen said.

The scientists refer to these affected plants as 'zombies'. A protein known as SAP54 is the main element responsible for the zombie like effect on plants.

"This protein comes from the bacteria and bears a strong structural resemblance to proteins which form a regulatory complex inside the plant, which permits a normal development of the blossom," said Florian Rumpler, lead author of the study.

The researchers found that SAP54 proteins imitates the structure of certain MADS-domain proteins in the infected plants, which perfectly connects with SAP54 instead of their own proteins, according to the researchers. The MADS-domain protein dies as a result and they can no longer fulfil their functions.

"This prevents the formation of petals and flower organs," Rumpler said.

MADS-domain proteins are a binding type of DNA that is necessary for flowering to take place. It is possible that this similarity of the molecules results from both proteins deriving from a common origin, however, the researchers claim that this is not the case, according to the study.

The researchers claimed that as the bacterial protein evolves, it adapts precisely to its host. This phytoplasma infestation is known to many gardeners and botanists. This zombie effect is sometimes referred to as 'broom growth' on apple trees. For winegrowers and plant breeders, phytoplasmoses occasionally leads to lower yields, according to the researchers.

"Although we understand the infection process better now, we are not yet able to prevent it," Theissen said.

However, the researchers believe that their new finding will lead to future developments that can solve help reduce the effects of the phytoplasma infection in flowering plants.  

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