Parasitic Plants Steal Genes from Their Hosts

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New research published June 8 in BioMed Central’s open access journal BMC Genomics reveals that the Malaysian parasitic plant Rafflesia cantleyi, with its 50cm diameter flowers, has ‘stolen’ genes from its host Tetrastigma rafflesiae. Analysis of these genes shows that their functions range from respiration to metabolism, and that some of them have even replaced the parasites own gene activity.

Vertical gene transfer is that between parents and their offspring, while horizontal gene transfer is the movement of genes between two different organisms. Bacteria use horizontal gene transfer to exchange resistance to antibiotics. Recent studies have shown that plants can also use horizontal gene transfer, especially parasitic plants and their hosts due to their intimate physical connections.

Rafflesia cantleyi is an obligate holoparasite (dependent on its host, and only that host, for sustenance), which grows on Tetrastigma rafflesiae, a member of the grape family. Researchers from Singapore, Malaysia and USA collaborated to systematically investigate the possibility of horizontal gene transfer between these two plants. By looking at the transcriptome (the transcribed products of switched on genes) they found 49 genes transcribed by the parasite, accounting for 2% of their total transcriptome, which originally belonged to the host. Three quarters of these transcripts appear to have replaced the parasites own version.

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