Scientists at the University of Delaware have uncovered a hidden weapon that one of the most invasive wetland plants in the United States uses to silently and efficiently bump off its neighbors.
The invasive strain of Phragmites australis, or common reed, believed to have originated in Eurasia, exudes from its roots an acid so toxic that the substance literally disintegrates the structural protein in the roots of neighboring plants, thus toppling the competition.
Phragmites is taking over the marsh world, said UD plant biologist Harsh Bais. It's a horticultural disaster.
In Delaware alone, the tall, tasseled grass has overtaken tens of thousands of acres of wetlands, decreasing biodiversity, reducing the food and habitat available to wildlife, and altering wetland hydrology, transforming marshes once dissected by tidal creeks and open pools into much drier systems with dense monocultures of the plant.
Bais, who led the project, is an assistant professor of plant and soil sciences in UD's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and holds an appointment at the Delaware Biotechnology Institute. His collaborators included postdoctoral researcher Thimmaraju Rudrappa, undergraduate student Justin Bonstall, and marine botanists John Gallagher and Denise Seliskar, who co-direct the Halophyte Biotechnology Center in UD's College of Marine and Earth Studies.
The results of the research are reported in the latest issue of the Journal of Chemical Ecology.
Bais is an expert on allelopathy, in which one plant produces a chemical to inhibit the growth of another plant. He refers to these plants with the capability to wage chemical warfare as natural killers.
Walnut trees, pine trees, ferns and sunflowers are among the plants that release harmful chemicals to prevent other plants from growing too close to them.
However, Phragmites uses this strategy not so much to keep other plants away, but t
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University of Delaware