In a groundbreaking study published in The Plant Journal, scientists have meticulously examined the genome of Sosnowsky's hogweed, a notorious invasive plant known for its ability to cause skin burns through contact with its toxic sap. The research, conducted by a team from Skoltech and the A. A. Kharkevich Institute for Information Transmission Problems of RAS, has unveiled a surprising revelation — the genome of Sosnowsky's hogweed harbors nearly twice as many genes as most other plants, totaling a staggering 55,000 genes.
This high gene count is an intriguing aspect, given that most plants typically have between 25,000 and 35,000 genes. The researchers utilized a DNA sequencer to unravel the plant's genome, marking individual genes and discovering an abundance of gene duplications, particularly associated with the synthesis of secondary metabolites, including linear furanocoumarins such as psoralen and its derivatives. These compounds make Sosnowsky's hogweed highly dangerous, causing heightened sensitivity to ultraviolet radiation and resulting in skin burns upon contact.
Maria Logacheva, an assistant professor from the Bio Center and a member of the project team, sheds light on this discovery, noting that the numerous gene duplications responsible for the elevated gene count are rather unusual. The team further explored genes involved in the synthesis of toxins causing skin burns in daylight, pinpointing their functions. Notably, they experimentally determined the function of one gene that converts marmesin into psoralen.
The implications of this research extend beyond understanding the genomic peculiarities of Sosnowsky's hogweed. The unique bioactive molecules identified in the plant's genome open up possibilities for practical applications in medicine and pharmacology. These molecules could serve as a basis for developing new drugs and innovative treatment approaches for skin problems.
The study also holds significance for ecological and environmental concerns. Sosnowsky's hogweed, originally cultivated post-World War II as a promising fodder crop in northwest European Russia, has become a menacing invasive species. It poses a substantial threat to ecosystems and human health, rapidly spreading and displacing other plant species, while its toxic sap induces skin burns and irritation.
Looking ahead, the researchers plan to continue their exploration of the hogweed genome. They aim to delve into the genetic diversity of this species in both its native habitat and areas it has invaded. Collecting and analyzing samples from across Russia, ranging from Kaliningrad to the Far East, will help unravel the spread patterns and strategies of Sosnowsky's hogweed. Additionally, the team aims to explore the relationships between Sosnowsky's hogweed and related species, such as Mantegazzi's hogweed, which is experiencing rapid proliferation in Western Europe. This comprehensive approach seeks not only to expand our understanding of the hogweed's genetic makeup but also to inform strategies for its control and monitoring.