Blacksburg, Va., Three types of parasitic plants, each exhibiting a different degree to which it needs its host, are the subject of a three-year, $1.5 million study at Virginia Tech to catalog genes essential to parasitism. Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Plant Genome Program, the study examines hard-to-control weeds in the Orobanchaceae family that can wreak havoc on commodity and food crops, especially in developing countries in Africa and the Middle East.
From a practical point of view, we want to understand these plants better because they devastate yields for potatoes, tomatoes, sunflowers, beans, and cereal crops, among others, and we want to learn how to control them, said Jim Westwood, associate professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. From a purely scientific point of view, we also want to gain more information about these plant species because of their unique biology. We know little about the genomics of parasitism in plants, and this study will increase our knowledge in this area.
Westwood and his colleagues are studying three genera within the Orobanchaceae family, each representing a different stage of evolutionary development, and then analyzing this data.
- Westwood is focusing his portion of the study on the Orobanche genus, commonly known as broomrape. This genus relies entirely on other plants for nutrients, never photosynthesizing or producing its own chlorophyll.
- Michael Timko, professor of biology at the University of Virginia, is investigating the Striga genus, which will not germinate without a host. Unlike Orobanche, this so-called witchweed only needs other plants during its early growth stages and does produce some of its own nutrients through photosynthesis.
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