How plants become zombies

In a zombie plant the plant is forced to sacrifice its reproductive success and becomes sterile. It is now a zombie plant, destined to benefit only the survival of the bacteria.

  1. A healthy plant is infected by a parasite, such as a phytoplasma, which are bacteria that are transmitted by leafhopper (insect) vectors.
  2. The phytoplasmas produces SAP effector proteins which depend upon certain plant proteins for their activities.
  3. The bacterial and plant proteins delay plant aging, force the plant into producing more stems and leaves and transforming its flowers into leaf like material. The plants also become more attractive to leafhoppers for feeding and egg laying.
  4. When leafhoppers eat the infected plant material, the bacteria from it colonises the insects, including their salivary glands.
  5. The insect dribbles saliva as it sucks on another plant, and the bacteria are able to spread to new plant tissue. The bacteria then gets to work on making that plant more attractive to leafhoppers while the leafhopper goes on to spread the bacteria to other infected plants.

Selected publication on this topic:

Zombie Plants in the Media: Press Release The microbial molecule that turns plants into zombies