Plants Gone Wild– Catherine Rasgaitis

Updated: Jan 21, 2021

When you hear the word “deformity,” you probably think of a malformed person or animal— but rarely do you think of deformities in the context of plants. However, like all living creatures, plants are also susceptible to random genetic mutations, hormonal imbalances, and harmful infections.

One of the most interesting deformities in plant teratology is known as fasciation. This deformity affects almost every type of plant, yet there is no known way to eradicate it. Fortunately, fasciation does not usually interfere with the way a plant functions. Sometimes, fasciation is even sought after in certain plant groups such as succulents and cacti.

Fasciation is the result of a variety of causes, including errors in replicationduring cell division and phytoplasma bacteria triggering abnormal changes in hormonal patterns. However, the results are always a spectacular sight to behold. Essentially, fasciation causes specific tissues to become flattened or fused together because of miscommunication between cells. This can cause a plant to look warped or stretched out, causing certain parts of the plant to “repeat” a singular pattern over and over again.

Fasciation is actually more common than you might think. In fact, you have probably seen fruits affected by fasciation while shopping in a grocery store. If you’ve ever seen a particularly thick tomato or a wide-bodied strawberry, that’s fasciation at work!

Beyond fasciation, there are numerous other mutations that exist in the plant world. Like people and animals, plants are also vulnerable to albinism, a disorder that causes absent or reduced levels of pigmentation.

But, unlike people and animals, albinism can be deadly for plant life. Without chlorophyll pigments, plants cannot perform photosynthesis, a process that is vital for the survival of the average plant. Because of this, the majority of both full and partial albino plants are unable to produce energy and, as a result, die very quickly.

In spite of this, there are rare cases where albino plants can survive. A good example of this is the albino redwood tree, which looks more like a shrub due to the small amounts of nutrients it obtains from its photosynthetic parent plant.

A thriving albino redwood.

However, the case of the albino redwood tree becomes fascinating through recent studies that show that the relationship between the albino and photosynthetic tree is not entirely parasitic. In fact, the albino redwoods are actually beneficial to photosynthetic redwoods —especially in areas high in toxic metals. This is because albino redwoods can take in greater amounts of soil contaminated with metals including nickel or copper. These metals normally interfere with the process of photosynthesis, but since the albino redwoods cannot photosynthesize, they are not affected when absorbing these substances. Additionally, by tolerating the albino redwoods, the photosynthetic redwoods will absorb fewer toxic metals and photosynthesize more efficiently.

In both instances of fasciation and albinism, we see that the effects of mutations in plants can lead to extraordinarily unique and striking results. The next time you go

hiking, keep an eye out for plant abnormalities and truly enjoy the natural (and unnatural) wonders around us all!

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