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Biochemist's Research May Help Prevent the Spread of Invasive Reed Species

Salt marshes along U.S. coasts are beginning to look different as Phragmites australis (a Eurasian reed) displaces native vegetation. Phragmites secrete killer compounds, giving the plants a competitive edge over native species -- despite the best efforts of managers who use herbicides and fire to remove the invasive reeds. Until a recent discovery by Harsh Bais of the University of Delaware, no one realized the invasive plant was using chemical warfare to destroy roots of the native marsh vegetation. Funded by NSF, Bais is working to develop new methods for detecting allelopathy, the production by plants of compounds that are toxic to other plants.

Bais used the sequenced genome of the model plant, Arabidopsis thaliana, to find the genes involved in the production of exudates and then developed microscopic techniques to look for small molecules. With these new techniques he examined Phragmites roots and discovered gallic acid, a chemical used in tanning leather, exudates on them. Gallic acid also destroys the structural proteins that help plant roots maintain their their cellular integrity. After 10 minutes lab exposure to gallic acid, native marsh plant roots started to disintegrate. Within 20 mintes, the cellular integrity was completely gone.

Understanding the mechanisms of allelopathy of the invasive plant Phragmites may help mangers stop its spread, which has been continuing steadily since the 1950s. In the small state of Delaware -- where Bais works, the reed already occupies thousands of acres, reducing biodiversity and species habitat.

 

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  • Photo of a salt marsh
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