It’s well known that DNA and RNA strands are able to encode vast amounts of information, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that RNA is also being used as a means of communication between species. Virginia Tech scientist Jim Westwood has discovered that messenger RNA is regularly exchanged between plants and parasitic weeds, allowing the two to communicate with each other.

Plants RNA

“The discovery of this novel form of inter-organism communication shows that this is happening a lot more than any one has previously realized,” said Westwood, Phys.org reports. “Now that we have found that they are sharing all this information, the next question is, ‘What exactly are they telling each other?’.”

RNA communication probably part of the parasites attack on its host

While studying the interaction between dodder, a type of parasitic weed, and different host plants Westwood had previously found that the plants’ RNA was travelling through the dodder appendage used to suck moisture and nutrients out of the hosts (called the haustorium). But in the more recent paper being published in Science, he shows that mRNA is actually being sent back and forth between the parasite and host. Westwood speculates that this may be the parasites way of telling the plant to turn off its defenses, forming one part of its overall attack, but he will have to make a more detailed examination of the mRNA before he can say anything more conclusive.

mRNA communication could be used for parasite control

The prospect of inter-species communication based on the one medium that really is common to all life is exciting, but Westwood is also pretty practical about the potential applications.

“The beauty of this discovery is that this mRNA could be the Achilles heel for parasites,” Westwood said. “This is all really exciting because there are so many potential implications surrounding this new information.”

If Westwood could figure out a way to interrupt the conversation and basically tell parasitic weeds to go blow, it would be a boon for agriculture where parasitic weeds can still destroy crops if not kept under control. This approach could be limited to parasites like dodder that are already set up for some sort of mRNA communication, but then again who would have guessed that such communication was happening at all. It’s not hard to come up with a few terrifying scenarios as well, but with such a novel discovery we’ll have to wait for Westwood to get back to us on the probable limits.