Parasitic bacteria can teach us a lot, according to scientists who have just discovered a manipulation mechanism used by the bacteria to slow down plant aging. Their insights might lead to new ways to protect food crops from disease.
Some plants fall so far under the sway of parasites that they’re termed “zombies.” Instead of reproducing and living normal plant lives, they are reduced to being a host and habitat for parasitic pathogens. Researchers published their findings in Cell, detailing a manipulation molecule that phytoplasma bacteria produces. This protein molecule can hijack plant development, breaking down key growth regulators and triggering bizarre deviations in growth. For example, if you’ve ever seen the tight configuration of excess branches in trees called “witches’ brooms,” that’s an example of phytoplasma bacteria reprogramming its host plant.
“Phytoplasmas are a spectacular example of how the reach of genes can extend beyond the organisms to impact surrounding environments,” said Saskia Hogenhout, one of the study’s authors, as reported by Newswise. “Our findings cast new light on a molecular mechanism behind this extended phenotype in a way that could help solve a major problem for food production. We highlight a promising strategy for engineering plants to achieve a level of durable resistance of crops to phytoplasmas.”
The study found that SAP05, a bacterial protein, disrupts a plant’s natural mechanism of breaking down proteins inside plant cells. With these proteins out of the picture, SAP05 can zombify the plant, forcing it to favor the bacteria over its healthy self. It triggers the growth of vegetative tissues and shoots and pauses the plant’s aging process.
The researchers identified two amino acids in the plant which interact with SAP05. If they switch these amino acids with two found in insect protein instead, they can halt the abnormal growth. The study’s finding suggests that if scientists fiddle with these two amino acids in food crops, perhaps by using gene-editing techniques, they could overcome the zombifying effects of some parasitic bacteria.
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