Plant Biologists Take the Lead on Elucidating Zombie Genetics

Flowers produced from health (left) and AY-WB-infected (right) Arabidopsis lines approximately 4 weeks postinoculation. Photo credit: MacLean, A. M.  PLOS Biology 2014.  12, e1001835 http://pmid.us/24714165

Flowers produced from health (left) and AY-WB-infected (right) Arabidopsis lines approximately 4 weeks postinoculation. Photo credit: MacLean, A. M. PLOS Biology 2014. 12, e1001835 http://pmid.us/24714165

claimtoken-5367ae87b7cd2

Biology is full of stories that read like a modern day zombie apocalypse. For instance, the parasite Toxoplasma gondii has been in the news for its ability to infect the brains of rats, and reprogram their normal behavioral responses such that they lose their innate fear of cats. Previously, we reviewed the research about the parasitic fungus that infects ants, causing drastic changes in typical ant behavior to aid in distribution of the fungal spores.

In April of this year, MacLean and colleagues published research in PLOS Biology describing interactions between a phytoplasma parasite and Arabidopsis thaliana. What is nice about this particular “zombie” biology story is that the researchers present the beginnings of the genetics that underlie the plant-parasite-insect relationship, moving beyond a description of the phenotypic changes that occur to describing an actual mechanism for those changes. Continue reading