Bacterial “ghosts” could be a new way to treat plants with pesticides. These empty shells of bacterial cells can be filled with chemicals and will stick to leaves and stems even after heavy rain.

This could eventually allow less frequent pesticide spraying, a major target as agriculture tries to reduce costs and pollution.

The bacterial ghosts are made from cells of Pectobacterium cypripedii, a species that has evolved to stick to plants. The cells are treated with a protein from a bacteriophage, a virus that infects bacteria.

The virus protein creates a tunnel between the inner and outer cell membranes of the bacteria, enabling the cytoplasm and genetic information to be removed. Since the cell can only stick to the plant if the outside is not damaged, the chosen protein must leave only a neat hole, while preserving the rest of the cell.

“It’s like a bottle. You take the cork out and can remove the contents but the bottle itself is still intact,” says Tamás Hatfaludi, the lead researcher from the University of Vienna, Austria.

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