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Originally published August 22 2014

Vampire plants inject their prey with RNA

by J. D. Heyes

(NaturalNews) A scientist from Virginia Tech University has found a potentially new form of plant communication, one that permits them to share an extraordinary amount of genetic information with each other.

According to a press release by the university, the finding by Jim Westwood, a professor of plant pathology, physiology and weed science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, "throws open the door to a new arena of science that explores how plants communicate with each other on a molecular level."

The finding also gives scientists new information regarding ways to perhaps naturally fight parasitic weeds that can make trouble for food crops in some of the poorest parts of the world.

"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 Westwood, an affiliated researcher with the Fralin Life Science Institute. "Now that we have found that they are sharing all this information, the next question is, 'What exactly are they telling each other?'"

His findings were published on Aug. 15 in the peer-reviewed journal Science.

Genetic communicaton?

As reported by the university:

Westwood examined the relationship between a parasitic plant, dodder, and two host plants, Arabidopsis and tomatoes. In order to suck the moisture and nutrients out the host plants, dodder uses an appendage called a haustorium to penetrate the plant.

The researcher previously broke new ground when he discovered that, during this parasitic interaction, there is a transport of RNA between the two involved species. RNA translates information that has been passed down from DNA, the latter of which serves as the plant's genetic blueprint.

The university said that Westwood's new work has expanded the scope of this exchange and further examines the mRNA, or messenger RNA, which serves to send messages within cells to tell them what actions they must take, such as which proteins to code. It was believed that mRNA could be very fragile and short-lived, so transferring it between species was not thought possible.

However, Westwood found that, as this parasitic relationship took place, perhaps tens of thousands of mRNA molecules were being exchanged between both plants, which created an open dialogue of sorts between species that permits them to communicate freely.

Through the exchange, the university press release said, "the parasitic plants may be dictating what the host plant should do, such as lowering its defenses so that the parasitic plant can more easily attack it."

Next: Figuring out how to apply the findings

Now, Westwood's next project is aimed at finding out exactly what the mRNA are saying.

Using Westwood's newly discovered information, other scientists will be able to see if other organisms like bacteria and fungi also exchange information in a similar manner. His finding could also be used to solve the problem of food scarcity.

"Parasitic plants such as witchweed and broomrape are serious problems for legumes and other crops that help feed some of the poorest regions in Africa and elsewhere," Julie Scholes, a professor at the UK's University of Sheffield who is familiar with Westwood's work but was not part of this project, told the university. "In addition to shedding new light on host-parasite communication, Westwood's findings have exciting implications for the design of novel control strategies based on disrupting the mRNA information that the parasite uses to reprogram the host."

Westwood noted that, while his finding is unique and interesting, how he can apply it will be equally intriguing.

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


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