Magazine article Science News

How a Tomato Defeats a Scary Vampire Plant

Magazine article Science News

How a Tomato Defeats a Scary Vampire Plant

Article excerpt

Forget garlic. In real life, a tomato can defeat a vampire. And researchers have now figured out the first step to vegetable triumph.

The vampires are slim, tangling vines that look like splats of orange or yellow-green spaghetti after a toddler's dinnertime tantrum. Botanically, the 200 or so Cuscuta species are morning glories gone bad. In the same family as the heavenly blue garden trumpets, the dodders, as they're sometimes called, lose their roots about a week after sprouting and never grow real leaves. Why bother when you can drain food and water from the neighbors?

A dodder seedling, basically a bare stem, finds that first neighbor by writhing and groping (in slow plant time) toward attractive plant odors. "The Cuscuta can smell its victims," says Markus Albert of the University of Tubingen in Germany.

Depending on the dodder species, victims include asparagus, melons, sugar beets, petunias, garlic, chrysanthemums and oak trees. Even worse for civilization as we know it, some Cuscuta species vampirize coffee plants and grapevines.

Certain dodders do kill tomato plants. But not the C. reflexa from Asia that Albert studies; instead, it gets its skinny little haustoria whipped. Haustoria are the organs that make plant parasitism possible. When a dodder seedling brushes against tasty prey, a haustorium disk forms and pushes out from the dodder stem with a fast-growing point. "It really looks like a vampire tooth," Albert says.

If the prey is, say, a soybean plant, it's doomed. …

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