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Insects trade bacteria by drinking from the same plant

Many insects suck the juices of plants, much to the dismay of gardeners and farmers. But plants are more than just a source of food; they’re also a source of bugs for bugs. Ayelet Caspi-Fluger from the Newe-Ya’ar Research Center has found that sap-sucking whiteflies can transfer bacteria into the plants they feed from, and these bacteria can then be picked up by other whiteflies. By plunging their straws into the same jug, the whiteflies can pass beneficial microbes to one another.

Insects carry a wide variety of bacteria inside their tissues, which help them digest their food and even grant them superpowers. These passengers are passed on from mother to youngsters, and across sexual partners. But they must also have ways of jumping across the species barrier, for closely related bacteria are often found in distantly related insects. Plants are an obvious route, but until now, no one has clearly shown that they can channel bacteria from one insect to another. Caspi-Fluger is the first.

She worked with sweet potato whiteflies – a worldwide pest – that carried Rickettsia, a bacterium best known for infecting humans and other back-boned animals. It causes diseases such as typhus and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and is spread through the bite of blood-sucking arthropods like ticks, fleas and lice. But this is one of many guises: some species can also cause disease in plants like papayas, while others act as helpful hitchhikers that provide insects with nutrients.

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