Parasitic weeds turn plants’ DNA against themselves

Parasitic weeds may be able to steal genes from the plants they are attacking and then use those genes against the host plant.

Researchers detected 52 incidences of the nonsexual transfer of DNA—known as horizontal gene transfer, or HGT—from a host plant to members of a parasitic plant family known as the broomrapes.

The transferred genes then became functional in the parasitic species. Although considered rare in plants and other complex species, HGT may thus occur in some parasitic plants. The findings could lead to better methods of controlling parasitic plants that threaten agriculture.

“These parasitic plants that we study from the broomrape family include some of the world’s most devastating agricultural weeds,” says Claude dePamphilis, professor of biology at Penn State.

Why ‘vampire’ plants are good to have around

“The HGT discovery is really part of our effort to try to better understand how parasitic plants work and how we can better control them. Our hope is that we can use this information to find the best strategies to generate, or breed, resistant host plants.”

Perks for the parasites

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the findings suggest that the transfer could boost the parasitic plant’s ability to invade their hosts and overcome defenses the host creates to try to ward off attacks. HGT may also help reduce the risk of infection for the parasites.

While horizontal gene transfers in less complex species, such as bacteria, are common, most evolution in more complex organisms is driven by the sexual exchange of DNA, along with mutation and natural selection. However, researchers suggest that the close feeding connections of parasitic plants with their hosts may increase the chances of intact genes traveling from the host to the parasite’s genome where it can quickly become functional.

“Parasitic plants seem to have a far greater rate of horizontal gene transfer than non-parasitic plants and we think this is because of their very intimate connection with their host,” says dePamphilis.

Gene thieves

The roots of the parasite contact and enter the host, and then begin extracting water, sugars, mineral nutrients and even nucleic acids, including DNA and RNA.

“So, they are stealing genes from their host plants, incorporating them into the genome, and then turning those genes back around, very often, as a weapon against the host,” dePamphilis says.

Farmers throughout the world struggle with these types of parasitic plants, which are so numerous in some areas of the world that they become a major source of crop loss. In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, Striga—or witchweed—is one of the most damaging sources of agricultural loss.

To detect HGT in the plants, researchers used data generated by their collaborative research effort funded by the US National Science Foundation—the Parasitic Plant Genome Project—to generate evolutionary histories for thousands of genes in the parasitic plants.

Can we engineer attack-proof plants?

The researchers focused on transcriptomes—expressed gene sequences—of three parasitic plants: Triphysaria versicolor, also called yellowbeak owl’s-clover; Striga hermonthica, or giant witchweed; and Phelipanche aegyptiaca, called Egyptian broomrape, as well as the nonparasitic plant Lindenbergia philippensis, and genome sequences from 22 other nonparasitic plants.

Because the researchers considered mRNA, which can move between hosts and their parasites, as a possible source of the transfers, they tested and re-tested the data to rule out the experimental host as the source of the genetic material. Instead, they found that the foreign sequences had been derived from entire genes of past host plants and incorporated into the parasitic plant genomes.

Future research may investigate the mechanism of horizontal gene transfer to help engineer improved plant defenses against parasitic attacks, dePamphilis says.

Other researchers from Penn State, Rutgers University, the University of California Davis, Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, and the US Department of Agriculture are coauthors of the study. Funding came from the US National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture Project of the US Department of Agriculture, and the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences.

Source: Penn State

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