UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Some parasitic plants steal genetic material from their host plants and use the stolen genes to more effectively siphon off the host’s nutrients. A new study by researchers at Penn State, Virginia Tech, and Kennesaw State University reveals that the parasitic plant dodder has stolen a large amount of genetic material from its hosts, including over 100 functional genes. These stolen genes contribute to dodder’s ability to latch onto and steal nutrients from the host and even to send genetic weapons back into the host. The new study appears July 22 in the journal Nature Plants.
“Horizontal gene transfer, the movement of genetic material from one organism into the genome of another species, is very common in microbes and is a major way that bacteria can acquire antibiotic resistance,” said Claude dePamphilis, professor of biology at Penn State and senior author of the study. “We don’t see many examples of horizontal gene transfer in complex organisms like plants, and when we do see it, the transferred genetic material isn’t generally used. In this study, we present the most dramatic case known of functional horizontal gene transfer ever found in complex organisms.”
Parasitic plants like dodder cannot live on their own by generating energy through photosynthesis. Instead, they use structures called haustoria to tap into a host plant’s supply of water and nutrients. Dodder wraps itself around its host plant, growing into its vascular tissue, and often feeds on multiple plants at one time. It can parasitize many different species, wild plants as well as those of agricultural and horticultural importance.