PhD student invited by Journal of Experimental Botany (JXB) to write an Insight Article
Arjan Banerjee, a 5th year PhD student in Stefanovic Lab, has worked with the Journal of Experimental Botany (JXB) before and when Li et al submitted a paper about dodder-transmitted mobile signals, the journal reached out to him and invited him to write an Insight Article discussing the ramifications of their results. He found Li et al's paper fascinating and was happy to write the review that was recently published alongside it.
Cuscuta (dodders) are a genus of parasitic plants that have a reduced (or sometimes absent) ability to photosynthesize and instead meet their dietary needs by forging direct connections with the vascular systems of photosynthetic plants (hosts) and stealing water and nutrients from them. Obviously, as parasites, Cuscuta are primarily treated as evil-doers and the academic attention focused on the genus has largely been concerned with the identification and mitigation of the negative effects they have on their hosts.
Image: Coleus (purple) & Cuscuta (brown-orange vines creeping up) (UTM Greenhouse)
The work presented by Li et al (2020), though, provides an instance where parasitic plants like Cuscuta may actually compensate, to some extent, for the resource-based costs of their parasitism by allowing plants in dodder-colonized clusters to engage in vital informational exchange with one another using the connections created between them by the parasite. In the example they use, plants exposed to salt stress were able to warn other connected plants of the impending unfavourable conditions effectively enough to elicit a 'priming' effect in their neighbours which mitigated the negative physiological consequences of the stress. Prior work from the same lab (Hettenhausen et al, 2017) suggests that similar communication strategies may help dodder-connected clusters of plants mediate the effects of herbivory related stress as well.
In his review, Arjan discusses these results and speculates about the identity of the causative mobile signal. He also briefly discusses how these results may effect future ecological studies of plant communities which are known to be parasitized by dodders, and lays out a few potentially compelling avenues of research that would build on Li et al's results and explore them further.
Arjan is a 5th year PhD student studying the genomic effects of transition to parasitism in plants, with a focus on changes in the plastid genome. Originally from Kolkata, India, he moved to Mississauga in 2011 to start his undergrad at UTM. After graduating, he stayed on to begin a PhD in the Stefanovic lab. In his time in grad school, he has been the President of the UTM Association of Graduate Students and a site coordinator for Let's Talk Science. He was awarded the UTM Graduate Student Leadership Award in 2018.