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Love vines suck life from wasps, leaving mummies

For the first time, biologists have documented dueling parasites in South Florida. When love vines do battle with gall wasps, the result is wasp mummies.

If you’ve lived around live oak trees, you might have seen pea-sized, tumor-like growths on the undersides of the trees’ leaves. They’re called galls, and they’re made by a parasitic insect called a gall wasp, as a safe nursery for its larvae. Rice University scientists, working in the scrub habitat of South Florida, said on August 20, 2018, that – for the first time – they’ve discovered an interaction between these wasp parasites and a plant parasite called a love vine. They’ve learned that the vine attacks these galls, feeding off the wasp larvae inside, leaving behind dead and mummified wasps.

The paper describing this parasite-on-parasite interaction was published August 20, 2018, in the peer-reviewed journal Current Biology.

Have you seen these on the undersides of live oak leaves? Gall wasps tricks oak trees into forming them, as a safe haven for the wasps’ larvae. In South Florida, love vines have learned to attack these galls for nourishment. Image via S. Egan/Rice University.

The love vine plant wraps itself around the galls and leaves behind wasp mummies. Image via S. Egan/Rice University.

Scott Egan of Rice University is lead author of the new study. He’s spent 17 years studying gall-forming insects. He said he’d never seen a love vine (which typically gets its nourishment from other plants) feeding off a gall wasp:

I had never seen this. But the fact that no one, as far as we know, had ever documented this was incredible because biologists have studied each of these – the vines and the insects – for more than a century.

He said the find is exciting because it shows a new aspect of nature that hadn’t previously been noticed and could offer clues about ways to control agricultural pests and perhaps even fight cancer.

This is a love vine, is a parasitic plant common on 4 continents. Ew. Image via S. Egan/ Rice University.

Egan explained:

Galls are like tumors in many ways. The wasps induce them to grow at the site where they lay their eggs, but the galls are part of the tree. The cells there have the same DNA as any other cell in the tree. They’ve just been reprogrammed to grow and behave in a way that is ultimately harmful to the tree.

If we can find out how the vines identify the galls, how they zero in on them, it could potentially provide new clues for targeting and fighting cancer.

Read more via Rice University

Rice University postdoctoral researcher Glen Hood (left) and graduate student Linyi Zhang conducting field work. Image via S. Egan/Rice University.

Bottom line: Rice University biologists are studying an interaction between two parasites, a plant called a love vine and an insect called a gall wasp. When these two interact, the result is mummified wasps.

Source: Botanical parasitism of an insect by a parasitic plant

Deborah Byrd

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