A Bacterial Parasite Effector Mediates Insect Vector Attraction in Host Plants Independently of Developmental Changes.

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Parasites can take over their hosts and trigger dramatic changes in host appearance and behavior that are typically interpreted as extended phenotypes that promote parasite survival and fitness. For example, Toxoplasma gondii is thought to manipulate the behaviors of infected rodents to aid transmission to cats and parasitic trematodes of the genus Ribeiroia alter limb development in their amphibian hosts to facilitate predation of the latter by birds. Plant parasites and pathogens also reprogram host development and morphology. However, whereas some parasite-induced morphological alterations may have a direct benefit to the fitness of the parasite and may therefore be adaptive, other host alterations may be side effects of parasite infections having no adaptive effects on parasite fitness. Phytoplasma parasites of plants often induce the development of leaf-like flowers (phyllody) in their host plants, and we previously found that the phytoplasma effector SAP54 generates these leaf-like flowers via the degradation of plant MADS-box transcription factors (MTFs), which regulate all major aspects of development in plants. Leafhoppers prefer to reproduce on phytoplasma-infected and SAP54-trangenic plants leading to the hypothesis that leafhopper vectors are attracted to plants with leaf-like flowers. Surprisingly, here we show that leafhopper attraction occurs independently of the presence of leaf-like flowers. First, the leafhoppers were also attracted to SAP54 transgenic plants without leaf-like flowers and to single leaves of these plants. Moreover, leafhoppers were not attracted to leaf-like flowers of MTF-mutant plants without the presence of SAP54. Thus, the primary role of SAP54 is to attract leafhopper vectors, which spread the phytoplasmas, and the generation of leaf-like flowers may be secondary or a side effect of the SAP54-mediated degradation of MTFs.