Mysterious Asian ‘corpse flower’ parasite actually steals huge chunks of its host’s DNA – but what does it do with it?

The ‘corpse flower’ – a parasitic plant which lives in the jungles of Borneo does something far more sinister than simply living off its host.

A corpse flower in Sarawak, Malaysia: The 'corpse flower' - a parasitic plant which lives in the jungles of Borneo does something far more sinister than simply living off its host

The parasite, which attaches itself to grape vines, actually steals chunks of its host’s DNA – and cannot live without being inside it.

The flower is known as the ‘corpse flower’ because it emits an odour of rotting flesh.

It’s found in the jungles of Borneo.

The flower is separated from its host by 100 million years of evolution, but shares large chunks of its genome, which it appears to have ‘siphoned off’ in a process similar to the one by which plants and animals pass genes to their offspring.

The finding has puzzled scientists, who say the research could rewrite our thinking on how parasite-host relationships work.

Scientists are unclear what the purpose of the stealing is – some plants have replaced their own, inherited genes with genes ‘borrowed’ from their hosts – but think it must convey some kind of advantage.

‘At the outset, we wondered if it could be that a subset of these genes might provide some defense from the host mounting an attack,’ said Harvard’s Professor Charles Davis.

‘However, the genes coming to the flowers represent a broad swath of functions, including respiration, metabolism and perhaps some useful for defense. If so, these findings might reflect a sort of genomic camouflage, or genomic mimicry for the parasite.’

‘For years, these plants have been something of an evolutionary mystery, because they simply don’t possess the genetic toolkit – primarily the genes associated with photosynthesis – that evolutionary biologists have used to place them on the broader tree of life,’ Davis said.

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