Speaking in (Green) Tongues: Scientist Discovers New Plant Language

Dodder on sugarbeet
A dodder plant perches on a sugar beet. Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Maybe when leaves whistle in the breeze, plants are really speaking to each other. A study published today in this week's Science journal unearths a new language spoken by plants. Jim Westwood, professor of pathology, physiology and weed science at the Virginia Tech's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences discovered that parasitic and host plants have a dialogue by sharing genetic information with one another.

For the study, Westwood studied how the parasitic dodder plant, and two host plants, Arabidopsis (a small flowering plant in the mustard family) and tomatoes, interacted with each other. In his previous research Westwood had discovered that during the plants' exchange, the two species transported RNA (ribonucleic acid, molecules that help code and decode genetic data) back and forth.

This time around, Westwood examined the plants' messenger RNA, or mRNA, the molecule in cells that instructs organisms how to code certain proteins that are key to functioning. MRNA helps to regulate plant development and can control when plants eventually flowers. He found that the parasitic and the host plants were exchanging thousands of mRNA molecules between each other, thus creating a conversation.

"The discovery of this novel form of inter-organism communication shows that this is happening a lot more than any one has previously realized," Westwood said. "Now that we have found that they are sharing all this information, the next question is, 'What exactly are they telling each other?'"

Westwood speculates that the plants communicate about their relationship; for example, the parasitic plant might command the host plant to lower its defenses, that way it can attack it more easily. This discovery could result in potentially groundbreaking further discoveries about the host-parasite relationship in plants. Scientists hope to examine other organisms, like fungi and bacteria, to see if they communicate with each other in a similar way.

Westwood's next project will be an attempt to uncover what exactly the plants are saying to each other when they exchange mRNA information. For now, we can assume they're as baffled by global warming as we are.