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Rare tropical plant develops into carnivore under certain circumstances

by News Staff
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A fascinating discovery has been made by a research team from the universities of Hannover and Würzburg regarding the remarkable Triphyophyllum peltatum, a tropical plant found in West Africa. This plant has attracted considerable attention not only in the field of medical and pharmaceutical research but also from a botanical standpoint.

Triphyophyllum peltatum possesses unique constituents that have exhibited promising medicinal properties in laboratory tests. These components have shown potential in combating pancreatic cancer, leukemia cells, as well as the pathogens responsible for malaria and other diseases.

However, what sets this plant apart is its extraordinary ability to transform into a carnivorous organism under specific conditions. During this carnivorous phase, Triphyophyllum peltatum alters its diet to include small insects. It accomplishes this by utilizing adhesive traps in the form of secretion drops, which effectively capture the unsuspecting prey. Once captured, the plant proceeds to digest the insects using specialized lytic enzymes synthesized for this purpose.

Interestingly, the leaves of Triphyophyllum peltatum exhibit a high degree of adaptability, undergoing distinct transformations as the plant develops. In its juvenile phase, the plant initially produces simple leaves. As it progresses, it can give rise to “trap leaves,” which are characterized by a multitude of adhesive traps designed for capturing insects. Once these trap leaves have served their purpose, the plant reverts back to producing normal leaves. Alternatively, if the plant has entered the liana stage, it produces leaves adorned with two hooks at the tip, providing a climbing support.

This discovery not only highlights the plant’s significant medical potential but also sheds light on its intriguing biology. The mechanism responsible for its carnivorous behavior has now been deciphered, providing valuable insights into this remarkable species.

When Triphyophyllum peltatum enters the liana stage, the plant forms leaves with two hooks at the tip as a climbing support. Credit: Traud Winkelmann / Universität Hannover

The remarkable Triphyophyllum peltatum exhibits a remarkable degree of flexibility in terms of leaf development and identity expression. The duration of each developmental stage can vary, and the carnivorous phase can either be absent or compensated for later, allowing the plant to adapt to its habitat’s prevailing conditions.

The specific trigger that induces the plant’s carnivorous behavior has long remained a mystery. The difficulty in cultivating Triphyophyllum peltatum has hindered experimental investigations into the formation of trap leaves. However, researchers from Leibniz Universität Hannover (LUH) and Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (JMU) have successfully overcome this challenge.

The cultivation of Triphyophyllum peltatum was achieved in the greenhouse of the Würzburg Botanical Garden, providing a controlled environment for study. Meanwhile, in Hannover, scientists developed optimal conditions for propagating the plants in large quantities using in vitro techniques. This involved growing the plants in culture vessels containing well-defined nutrient media.

Professor Traud Winkelmann from the Institute of Horticultural Production Systems at Leibniz University Hannover, along with her colleague Anne Herwig from the Institute of Soil Science at LUH, contributed their expertise to the project. Additionally, professors Gerhard Bringmann (Institute of Organic Chemistry) and Rainer Hedrich (Julius-von-Sachs-Institute of Biosciences) from Würzburg were also involved in the collaborative research effort.

Phosphorus deficiency triggers the transformation

An exciting breakthrough has been achieved by the research team, who successfully identified the triggering factor responsible for inducing the carnivorous transformation in Triphyophyllum peltatum. The team’s findings have been published in the latest issue of the esteemed journal New Phytologist.

Through a series of experiments, the researchers exposed the plant to various stressors, including nutrient deficiencies, and meticulously observed its responses. Among all the tested conditions, only one circumstance led to the formation of traps: a deficiency in phosphorus. Remarkably, even a significantly reduced phosphorus supply proved sufficient to initiate the plant’s development into a carnivorous organism.

This discovery is of paramount significance since it sheds light on how Triphyophyllum peltatum adapts to its natural habitat in the tropical forests of Africa, characterized by nutrient-poor soils. By transforming into a carnivorous plant, it can overcome the threat of malnutrition by capturing insects and digesting them to access essential nutrients, particularly phosphorus. The researchers emphasize that these findings are groundbreaking, as they open the door to future molecular analyses that will enhance our understanding of the evolutionary origins of carnivory.

The study’s lead scientist, Traud Winkelmann, highlights the importance of these findings, emphasizing their potential to unravel the molecular mechanisms underlying the plant’s carnivorous behavior. Such insights will contribute to a deeper comprehension of how this unique trait evolved in Triphyophyllum peltatum and shed light on the broader evolutionary significance of carnivory in plants.

Source: Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg

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