Graphic: Scientists solve mystery of the zombie plants
06:30 09 April 2014
So, you think zombies are the stuff of science fiction nightmares? Think again – they are already among us, in the fields of Norfolk and Suffolk.
But now new research by Norwich-based scientists has discovered how they work, and may help stop any invasion in its tracks.
The popular image of zombies may be of flesh-eating corpses staggering about with outstretched arms, but their real-life equivalents under the microscope at the John Innes Centre are plants which have been taken over by bacteria – and the breakthrough could help farmers in our region.
Scientists already knew the bacteria change the plants’ behaviour, by making them turn their flowers into leaf tissue. This renders them sterile, but makes them more attractive to the insects which feed off them, which are in turn colonised by the bacteria, and then spread them to new plants.
In effect, the plant has become a zombie, its future taken over to meet the needs of the pathogen that colonised it.
The breakthrough in understanding the mechanism came from scientists in the labs of Saskia Hogenhout at the John Innes Centre, and Profs Angenent and Immink at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.
Asked if the whole topic was a bit morbid, Prof Hogenhout said: “I don’t think it’s dark. I think it’s interesting. I’m sure that if you call them zombies, people are thinking it’s scary, but what we really wanted to convey is that the parasite is completely changing the development of the host. The parasite is controlling the process, rather than the host controlling itself.”
The scientists found that the parasitic bacterium produces a protein called SAP54, which, together with a family of plant proteins called RAD23, coerces the plant into transforming its flowers into leaf-like material. The parasite cannot live without its plant and insect hosts, and its manipulation of the plant ensures its survival.
Prof Hogenhout said the phenomenon had been very important in crops such as lettuce, carrots, potatoes and grapes in Europe, reducing farmers’ yields, and has been found in apple and pear trees in England.
She added that it was moving north under the influence of climate change, as the leafhopper became able to live in previously colder areas.
She said: “If we know how the parasite does this, we can learn from the parasite and try to do the opposite.”
And while nothing was certain in science, she hoped that some way of preventing the zombification, which some wild plants have already achieved, could be found within the next 10 years.
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