Devious parasitic plant convinces host to grow into its own flesh | Science & Tech News

Scientists have observed how a merciless parasitic plant convinces its host to grow into its own flesh.

The mushroom-like balanophoraceae may look like fungi, but are actually a cluster of flowers called inflorescences.

And unlike other parasites that attach themselves to a host to steal nutrients directly, these devious plants convince their hosts to work with them to form a connective underground structure.

This structure mixes up the tissue of the host and the parasite – which then steals its victim’s nutrients.

The process was detailed in a new study published in the journal Nature Plants, which examined how the flowers operate compared to another extreme parasitic plant called sapria.

It found that while they are outwardly very different, they have undergone similarly major changes in their genetic makeup for the benefit of their relationship with their hosts.

Both have shed large amounts of their core genes, including those related to photosynthesis – the process by which plants make food from sunlight.

They have also sacrificed the genes responsible for absorbing nitrogen, root development, and the creation of a hormone that helps them respond to stress.

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The sapria plant. Pic: Len Worthington
The sapria plant. Pic: Len Worthington

Lead author Dr Xiaoli Chen described the gene losses as “striking”.

But far from make them more vulnerable, researchers believe they may aid their survival.

Dr Sean Graham, a botanist at the University of British Columbia, said: “There are probably instances where the gene loss was actually beneficial, rather than reflecting a simple loss of function.

“It may help them to maintain physiological synchronisation with the host plants.”

Dr Chen’s team said the work provides valuable insight into how parasitic plants evolve based on their hosts, and manipulate them to survive.

The study will aid a global project to sequence the genomes of 10,000 plant species.

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