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Vampire Plant Talks To Victims While Sucking Their Life Out

My, what a beautiful stem you have.

What does a vampire plant say to its victim while sucking out their vital fluids? That’s what researchers are trying to determine now that they’ve confirmed that a parasitic “vampire” plant sweet talks its victims in a unique way.

The Cuscuta pentagona, also known more sinisterly as strangleweed, is a parasitic vascular plant that wraps itself around its host in a spiral fashion and punctures the plants stems with appendages called haustauria. It then absorbs nutrients from the host plant. That’s the point where a new study found that the vampire plant is also communicating with its victim.

In the report published in the journal Science, weed science expert Jim Westwood of Virginia Tech describes how the strangleweed transports RNA (ribonucleic acid) into the host, giving instructions to the plant’s DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). In this process, both plants also exchange something called messenger RNA (mRNA), which are the genetic messages a plant uses to control things like leaf shape and root growth.

Strangleweed in action.

Strangleweed in action.

Using tomato plants and Arabidopsis plants (relatives of cabbage and mustard) as hosts, Westwood measured the mRNA exchanged and found almost half of the Arabidopsis mRNA in the strangleweed and a quarter of the strangleweed’s mRNA in the host. Smaller amounts were exchanged with the tomato plant.

What was happening here? The strangleweed was telling the host plants how to grow, changing their DNA to make them weak and lower their defenses. At the same time, the parasite was getting a report back on how things were going, probably acting concerned and telling the Arabidopsis things like “I feel your pain.”

Westwood says this new understanding of how parasitic plants communicate using mRNA will help biologists to develop ways to combat other parasitic plants like witchweed and broomrape that attack food crops.

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

Meanwhile, I’m working on my new screenplay, “Buffy, The Vampire Plant Clipper.”

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Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.
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