Can plants get cancer?

17 May 2016

Question

Hi Chris! I have a question for you. Can plants get cancer?
Hope you can answer as soon as possible.

Answer

We've all heard about Cancer in people and dogs but Howard Griffiths lets us know if plants can get it too...

Howard - Well that's a very interesting question and, intriguingly, we think that some of the regulatory elements - the things that trigger cancers in animal systems - well, those processors were first discovered in plants, actually.

Chris - What do you mean by regulatory systems?

Howard. Well, little genes that get produced - small RNAs that come out and edit gene expression. They actually control whether genes get turned on or off or whether that protein gets made and that's what causes these cells to start growing uncontrollably.

Chris - In humans and animals when you have a cancer you have, as you say, uncontrolled cell growth. This is a genetic problem and one of the characteristics of cancers is that the cells spread around the body, so can you get a similar phenomenon in plants?

Howard - Well, most of the cancerous types of growths that we see in plants are rather more localised. Often sorts of things that you might see are what used to be known as a "robin's pincushion" or even the "witches broom" that you see on Birch and that's often caused by a bacterial infection.

Chris - And what does the bacterial infection do?

Howard - It triggers cells to uncontrollably grow, it changes their hormone balance and because of that you then get this outgrowth.

Chris - So you can get something that's a bit like cancer but it's not the same sort of systemic problem that you get in a person?

Howard - Exactly.

Chris - But a lot of the genetic changes are common to both plants and people?

Howard - Yes, indeed. In fact the bacterial system, that's how we used to transfer genetic material from plant to plant (the bacterium called agrobacterium).

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