Bacteria Use Plants’ Trick to Take Their Iron

Pathogens appear to steal the metal from plants using the erratic motion of microscopic particles.

Ashley Yeager
Ashley Yeager

Ashley started at The Scientist in 2018. Before joining the staff, she worked as a freelance editor and writer, a writer at the Simons Foundation, and a web producer at...

View full profile.

Learn about our editorial policies.

ABOVE: GIMMIE: A pathogenic bacteria that steals Allium triquetrum’s iron may be key to controlling the invasive weed.


The paper
R. Grinter et al., “FusC, a member of the M16 protease family acquired by bacteria for iron piracy against plants,” PLOS Biol, 16:e2006026, 2018.

In Australia, the pathogenic bacterium Pectobacterium carotovorum decimates the invasive angled onion (Allium triquetrum, also known as the three-cornered leek or onion weed), by causing the plant to rot. One of the bacterium’s strengths is its ability to sap the plant’s iron reserves, but exactly how it does this has been a mystery. The answer could hold the key to using the bacterial species, and others like it, to control noxious weeds.

After sequencing the genome of the Australian strain of P. carotovorum, Trevor Lithgow, a microbiologist at Monash University in Melbourne,...

Plants use a similar strategy to harvest iron from their surroundings. It’s not clear whether the bacterium acquired the genes for iron piracy from the plants themselves or evolved them independently, the authors explain in their paper. Matthew Barber, a molecular biologist at the University of Oregon who was not involved in the research, says the iron-acquisition model is not completely fleshed out yet, but is worthy of more investigation. Still, he says, it’s “pretty cool” how bacteria have tapped into plants’ iron source to survive.

Interested in reading more?

February 2019 Issue

Become a Member of

Receive full access to digital editions of The Scientist, as well as TS Digest, feature stories, more than 35 years of archives, and much more!
Already a member?