If the fungal spore outbreak in The Last of Us scared the hell out of you, you’ll be doubly terrified to know that there are actual parasites in nature that can turn animals and plants into zombies. In fact, a group of scientists from the John Innes Centre in the UK just figured out how certain parasitic bacteria called phytoplasma turn their plant host into the living dead. You see, when these nefarious bacteria take over, they transform a plant’s flowers into leafy shoots, turning petals green and preventing the flowers from producing offspring. Apparently, that’s because the parasite has a protein called SAP54, which interacts with the plant so that flowers self-destruct from the inside.
John Innes plant pathologist Saskia Hogenhout says:
The plant appears alive, but it’s only there for the good of the pathogen. In an evolutionary sense, the plant is dead and will not produce offspring.
That’s not all the bacteria can do, though. In addition to changing a flower’s structure and rendering it sterile, the bacteria can also attract sap-sucking insects. Instead of dispersing pollen, these insects carry the parasite to more victims, turning more plants into green, leafy puppets.