Plants of the genus Cuscuta (dodder plants) have colorful folk names, such as wizard's net, devil's guts, strangle tare, or witch's hair. They are leaf- and root-less parasites and grow on their host plants without touching the soil. Their haustoria penetrate their host plants to extract water and nutrients. Dodder vines fuse their vascular systems with those of its host plants, connecting them with its network. A team of scientists led by Dr. Jianqiang Wu from the Kunming Institute of Botany in China and Dr. Ian Baldwin from the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena have now taken a closer look at the ecological significance of dodder. They wanted to know whether the parasite is not only tapping the plants' supply system, but also playing a role in plant-plant communication. "It has been found that plants can communicate through volatile cues and underground mycorrhizal networks. We therefore wanted to know whether dodder can transmit insect-feeding-induced signals among different hosts and whether these signals can even activate defenses against insects," explains Dr. Jianqiang Wu, who worked at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology as a PhD student and later a project leader, and who is now heading a Max Planck Partner Group in China. In agriculture, dodder causes considerable economic damages in pasture farming with alfalfa and clover.
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