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Agricultural parasite takes control of host plant’s genes

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17 October 2018

Dodder, a parasitic plant, attached to a host plant from which it obtains water and nutrients. The parasite inserts microRNAs into the host that can silence the expression of host genes. This is the first example of cross-species gene regulation observed in a parasitic plant. CREDIT: Penn State University.
Dodder, a parasitic plant, attached to a host plant from which it obtains water and nutrients. The parasite inserts microRNAs into the host that can silence the expression of host genes. This is the first example of cross-species gene regulation observed in a parasitic plant. CREDIT: Penn State University.
Dodder, a parasitic plant that causes major damage to crops in the U.S. and worldwide, can silence the expression of genes in the host plants from which it obtains water and nutrients. This cross-species gene regulation, which includes genes that contribute to the host plant’s defense against parasites, has never before been seen from a parasitic plant.

“Unlike most plants that get energy through photosynthesis, dodder siphons off water and nutrients from other plants by connecting itself to the host vascular system,” said Michael J. Axtell, professor of biology. “We were able to show that dodder passes microRNAs into its host plant that regulate the expression of host genes in a very direct way.”

When attacked by a parasite, a plant initiates a number of defense mechanisms. In one of these mechanisms, similar to blood clotting after a cut, the plants produce a protein that clots the flow of nutrients to the site of the parasite. MicroRNA from dodder targets the messenger RNA that codes for this protein, which then helps to maintain a free flow of nutrients to the parasite.

“The dream is that we could eventually use gene-editing technology to engineer resistance to the parasite,” said Axtell.

Read the full story at bit.ly/ECOSv2PR7