Magazine article Science News

Give and Take: Plant Parasites Dole out Genes While Stealing Nutrients

Magazine article Science News

Give and Take: Plant Parasites Dole out Genes While Stealing Nutrients

Article excerpt

Parasites are the ultimate moochers, earning a living by stealing hard-earned nutrients from their hosts. Now, a new study in plants suggests that parasites sometimes give something back: foreign genes.

Gene swapping between species, a process known as horizontal gene transfer, is relatively common and well studied in bacteria. However, scientists have only recently found evidence of horizontal gene transfer in plants. Last summer, two groups of researchers--one led by Jeffrey Palmer of Indiana University in Bloomington and the other by Charles Davis of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor--reported independently that some host plants pass their genes to the parasitic plant species that feed off them.

To determine whether gene transfer takes place in the opposite direction--from parasite to host--Palmer's team compared several genes from different species of the common weed genus Plantago with those in parasitic flower species of the Bartsia and Cuscuta genera.

Generally, the more closely related the species, the more similar their gene sequences. However, Palmer and his colleagues found that several Plantago species carry versions of a gene called atp1 that looks more like the comparable gene in either Bartsia or Cuscuta than like the one found in other Plantago species.

These results, published in the Nov. 11 Nature, suggest that Bartsia and Cuscuta each passed an atp1 gene to its Plantago host sometime during the past few million years. …

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