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Bacteria Turn Plants and Insects into Zombies

Parasites can turn plants into zombies and a team of scientists from the John Innes Center in Norwich, UK, has now discovered how they do it.

When plants are infected by parasitic bacteria called phytoplasmas, their flowers turn into leafy shoots, their petals turn green and they develop a mass of shoots called ‘witches’ brooms’. This transformation sterilizes the plant, while attracting the sap-sucking insects that carry the bacteria to new hosts.

“The plant appears alive, but it’s only there for the good of the pathogen,” says plant pathologist Saskia Hogenhout from the John Innes Center in Norwich, UK. “In an evolutionary sense, the plant is dead and will not produce offspring.”

“Many might baulk at the concept of a zombie plant because the idea of plants behaving is strange,” says David Hughes, a parasitologist at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. “But they do, and since they do, why wouldn’t parasites have evolved to take over their behavior, as they do for ants and crickets?”

Flowers of Madagascar rosy periwinkle infected by a bacterium produce leaf-like petals and attract a leafhopper that serves as the pathogen’s next vector.

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