Can pollution help trees fight infection?

08 Jul 2015 - By: Anthea Lacchia

Can pollution help trees fight infection?

By Anthea Lacchia

Trees that can tolerate soil pollution are also better at defending themselves against pests and pathogens. "It looks like the very act of tolerating chemical pollution may give trees an advantage from biological invasion", says Dr Frederic E. Pitre of the University of Montreal and one of the researchers behind the discovery.  

Unexpectedly, whilst studying the presence of genetic information (RNA) from fungi and bacteria in the trees, the researchers found evidence of a very large amount of RNA from a very common plant pest called the two-spotted spidermite. 

In fact, 99% of spidermite RNA was in higher abundance in trees without contamination, suggesting that the polluted plant's defence mechanisms, used to protect itself against chemical contamination, improves its resistance to a biological invader.  

"This higher spidermite gene expression (RNA) in non-contaminated trees suggests that tolerating contamination might 'prime' the trees' defence machinery, allowing them to defend themselves better against pests, such as spidermites," says Pitre.  

While early experiments were conducted in greenhouses, the researchers are now in the process of repeating the work on trees grown in real contaminated sites. The have already identified similar interactions with arachnids and insects, and the numbers of interacting organisms, especially fungi, are very high (often in the hundreds) for a given plant tissue when grown outside the laboratory.  

"It's rather intimidating to unravel but undoubtedly a fascinating, undiscovered world of biological complexity exists in the field environment, often at a level just beyond the human eye," says Pitre.  

Author: Anthea Lacchia
Category: Science news

Anthea Lacchia

Anthea Lacchia was just completing her PhD at Trinity College Dublin when she won our annual press internship 2015. Now working at the press office at Nature, Anthea enjoyed four weeks writing press stories for SEB and interviewing our researchers at the SEB Meeting in Prague.