Researchers Discover Parasite that Shut Down Hosts’ Genes to Thrive


Researchers from Penn State are now successful in discovering a new parasitic plant. This plant has been able to bypass the evolutionary arms race with its host plant. The parasitic plant steals vital nutrients from the host, which allows it to survive. This ability allows the parasite to thrive on a broad range of agriculturally vital plants. This parasite dodder can be found on every continent on the globe. It transfers genetic material in the host plant. This genetic material breaks down host’s defense genes and allows the parasite to thrive.

This new research study by scientists at Penn State believes that dodder targets those host genes that are conserved evolutionarily. It then sends several versions of its own genetic weaponry to gain entry in the host. These genetic material are slightly different than those of hosts and it ensures the effectiveness of parasite’s entry. This new research is now featuring in an online journal eLife. According to the research, the strategy of sending genetic weaponry restricts the host’s responsive abilities.

Broad Range of Host Plant Species to Target

So, instead of creating its own food using photosynthesis, dodders wrap themselves around their hosts. They use their special structures to steal off nutrients and water. These dodders have the ability to thrive on a broad range of host species. Some of the common hosts are agriculturally vital such as tomatoes.

According to Michael Axtell, lead author of the research study, the dodder transfers microRNAs in the host. MicroRNAs are small segments of nucleic acid. These segments have matching segment to that of the host gene. This segment binds with the host’s protein coding messenger RNAs.  This binding prevents the host gene protein to generate any defensive response.

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