October 14, 2007

Weapon of Mass Destruction Located

A few years ago, the US government decided that there had to be weapons of mass destruction hidden somewhere in a Middle Eastern desert. They didn't find any. They were looking in the wrong place. They should have been looking in marshes all over the US, because plant biologists from the University of Delaware have just found one there, and it's a real monster. It kills untold millions every year and has probably been doing so for many thousands of years. It may be one of the most effective biological weapons ever unleashed upon the planet, and it was right under our noses all along.

And that is my early morning attempt at making something sound dramatic that most people won't find nearly as lurid when it's explained. You see, the weapon of mass destruction in question isn't being manufactured by terrorists. The culprit in this case is the invasive common reed, Phragmites australis. The untold thousands upon whom this weapon is being unleashed aren't humans but other plants. It does seem, however, that this biochemical assault is a real disaster and could impact us in unpredictable ways.

The invasive reed manufactures a powerful toxin that dissolves a structural protein, tubulin, in the roots of other species. This can destroy the structural integrity of would-be competitors in a matter of minutes, allowing the reed to form effective monocultures. This is the mother of all chemical weapons in the plant world and, once again, we may have to intervene to stop its spread. The loss of genetic and species diversity currently underway because of this invasion is tremendous.

UD plant biologists uncover top wetland invader’s hidden weapon

...The invasive strain of Phragmites australis, or common reed, believed to have originated in Eurasia, exudes from its roots an acid so toxic that the substance literally disintegrates the structural protein in the roots of neighboring plants, thus toppling the competition.

“Phragmites is taking over the marsh world,” said UD plant biologist Harsh Bais. “It's a horticultural disaster.”

Image depicting loss of tubulinIn Delaware alone, the tall, tasseled grass has overtaken tens of thousands of acres of wetlands, decreasing biodiversity, reducing the food and habitat available to wildlife, and altering wetland hydrology, transforming marshes once dissected by tidal creeks and open pools into much drier systems with dense monocultures of the plant...

Walnut trees, pine trees, ferns and sunflowers are among the plants that release harmful chemicals to prevent other plants from growing too close to them.

However, Phragmites uses this strategy not so much to keep other plants away, but to aggressively conquer them and invade new territory.

“We've seen this capability in a number of invasive plants that have come from Eurasia, such as garlic mustard,” Bais said. “The roots exude a toxin that kills native plants..."

The scientists identified the toxin produced by Phragmites as 3,4,5-trihydroxybenzoic acid. Also known as gallic acid, it is used for tanning leather, to formulating astringents.

“It's nasty stuff,” Bais said. “If you get some of it on your skin, you definitely know it.”

The toxin works, Bais said, by targeting tubulin, the structural protein that helps plant roots to maintain their cellular integrity and grow straight in the soil. Within 10 minutes of exposure to the toxin in the lab, the tubulin of a marsh plant under siege starts to disintegrate. Within 20 minutes, the structural material is completely gone.

“When the roots collapse from the acid, the plant loses its integrity and dies,” Bais noted. “It's like having a building with no foundation--it's on its way to self-destruction..."
Quite a mess, no? This plant is everywhere and spreading like mad. So, do you think we'll see ShrubCo requesting $40bil in special funding to fight this aggressor?

Yeah, right.

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