At first I want to clarify that I do know that there are naturally poisonous plants and plants that can hold radioactive stuff or toxic material from the environment.

What I mean by "diseases" (I guess there is a special term for that in English) is Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy and similar serious issues caused by eating animals, by that you cannot develop when consuming plants.

As far as I know there are no diseases causes by eating fruit and vegetables (of course, except parasites if you don't wash it properly and an infected cow or bunny pooped on it ;D)

Is it because the parasites and diseases infecting plants are so specialised for their "body-type and genetics" that they cannot operate inside an animal body?

Could somebody explain that to me in more depth why by eating plants you cannot get a disease (except allergic reaction/intolerance or toxicities as mentioned earlier)?

  • $\begingroup$ It is because every pathogen has a specific host range(organisms which it can infect). $\endgroup$
    – biogirl
    Aug 20, 2013 at 9:59
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Food poisoning is caused by organisms which are symbiotic and adjusted to plants, that might be an exception. the illness is not from animal contamination. $\endgroup$
    – shigeta
    Aug 20, 2013 at 16:25
  • $\begingroup$ I think you can get salmonella from both animal products like eggs and plant products like flour. $\endgroup$
    – C_Z_
    Jun 30, 2015 at 23:42
  • $\begingroup$ There is an entire journal dedicated to harmful algae. Many land plants also produce potent toxins. (Diseases such as botulism, tetanus, cholera are effected mainly because of the toxin, rather than the bacterial growth). $\endgroup$
    Jul 1, 2015 at 12:05

2 Answers 2


If you mean if there are viruses, pathogenic bacteria or fungi that may cause diseases both in plants and in animals, the response would be that this is very unlikely (But even so, some fungi and bacteria could do it if some circumstances are given). This is due to some key factors:

First of all, the philogenetic distance between plants and animals is huge. Diseases transmitted by the consumption of animals are called zoonosis, and obviously it is more likely to catch a zoonosis by eating pork than eating shrimps or clams. While it's true that certain parasites have different hosts and use them to transmit themselves (for instance, many platyhelmintha uses mollusks or insects to spread themselves towards mammalian or avian hosts) parasites than have only one kind of host usually are adapted to live inside them, and they usually are unable to infect different organisms. Very few parasites can infect a human and a starfish, and even fewer can infect at the same time a human and a tomato plant.

Second, and related to the first, plant physiology differs completely from animal physiology. Plants usually defend themselves by their natural barriers (cuticles, cell walls), hypersensitive response (programmed cell death in order to limit the spread of a pathogen), isolation and/or outgrowing of the pathogen and accumulation of chemicals. Animals main mechanism is immune system. There are very different strategies and very few organisms can effectively avoid all of them at the same time. In the case of viruses, they would even have to face the fact that animals and plants have huge genetic differences.

Third even if they could, the pathogen will face competition against other pathogens that would be more specialized. Bacteria and fungi can be really hostile towards their microfoes, using a wide array of strategies. This hypothetical pathogen would be very unspecific, so they would have a hard time against more focused microbes. It should be noted, however, that unspecialized organisms usually have a great advantage if the environment have some perturbation, and they also are more resilient toward stress. Many plant pathogens are generalistic organisms that attacks when the plant is harmed or stressed. The same applies to many opportunistic infections in animals.

Despite all of this, there are some diseases that should be mentioned. Some fungi of the Clavyceps genera are plan pathogens, but they produce toxins than can affect the nervous system of animals, causing an intoxication called ergotism (the most famous of this chemicals is the lisergic acid, also known as LSD). Other fungi can produce toxins while they grow in plant tissue. Moreover, there are many fungi that can grow both in plant tissue and as animal parasites (mainly arthropods and nematodes), but in this case the plant pathogenesis usually occurs only when high fungal concentration is achieved or the plant is already damaged. While it's not a real infection, plant pathogens can cause allergic reactions. Finally, phytopathogenic fungi and some bacteria can cause infections in wounds or mucoses in individuals with a compromised immune system, but in this case the source seems to be the spores in the air.

  • $\begingroup$ The classical example of fungal toxins are aflatoxins, which are very nasty. $\endgroup$
    – nico
    Aug 20, 2013 at 11:17

I think a main problem here is limiting logic.

By eliminating both toxic/poisonous plants, plants that have evolved to discourage you from eating them, and improperly "washed" plants, things which contain non-plant mater that can make you sick, you are not left with the possibility of diseases.

BSE is caused by prions, which are mater of serious debate and research in academics at the moment. The leading cause of transmission is likely ingestion (1, 2), but it is quite possible that it arises as a mutation sporadically in certain mammals (3).

Coming back to your question, let's suppose two scenarios:

First let's suppose that a prion, or really any other pathogen, were to fall onto a piece a fruit from another mammal. If you, or a cow, were to eat it in this unclean state you have the chance to develop disease. But we would not eat the plant in this unclean state because we are to have it properly washed. The same is true for pathogenic microorganisms that are naturally occurring on plants. I think you addressed this well in the question.

But let us propose another situation where a plant evolves a new protein, or a new form of a protein as is the case in the prion. For simplicity let's call this protein "X." X may or may not be toxic to the plant, and cause disease in the plant. If it does, it would likely have selective pressure against the population it was in (even if it was infectious to plants like a prion). But we may not, at least in the beginning be able to tell if the plant has the protein in it, so we go ahead and eat it (and for the sake of argument, we won't cook it, which is bad news for all kinds of pathogens).

If that protein causes sickness in an animal (like humans) we would say that it is toxic, and we would exclude it per your preamble. If it is stable enough, it would remain toxic in our bodies, and should anyone be unfortunate enough to eat us or roll around in are carcass, there would be a small but theoretical chance they could get sick as well. Again it would likely be excluded from this question as a toxin.

I think these get at what you are asking, but I think there is a spirit of what you are asking which goes further:

Why aren't contagious agents produced by plants?

Miguel addresses the problem quite nicely. First, the genetic distance between humans and plants is so vast that a prion-like protein developing is highly unlikely. Second, plants themselves are unlikely to make good pathogens. Finally, natural selection has favored the production of toxins and irritants when plants have sought chemical means to deter animals (as opposed to a physical deterrent like a thorn).

Prions work because of shared/similar proteins existing within species. A similarly shared protein that we would had with plants would probably be so basic that it was shared by the vast majority of eukaryotes, and if it existed, would likely be capable of destroying a good deal of life, including the plant itself. Thankfully most of the very basic proteins we make a well regulated, and have mechanisms in place to “throw away” miss folded questions.

If we move past the genetic distance, and ignore the conditions that would be needed to select for plant being pathogens, let’s look at other obstacles plants would face. Plants aren’t very good at locomotion, so it would need to get on us by direct contact, carried to us from the elements, or by some other animal.

A good case example would be C. immitis, a fungus. It needs the spores to be kicked up and inhaled by an individual who is in some way compromised (normally). Once this happens, it can begin the next hard step which is to grow.

The immune system of a healthy individual would definitely recognize any fungal or plant matter as foreign object and try to get rid of it. Also note that a pathogenic plant would be limited in size by our behavior. I think even a sloth would not allow a flower or tree to grow out of its back or arm. Anything big enough would cause itching and/or illicit a behavioral effort to physically remove it. Many microbial infections do cause itching, which if you are larger than a microbe, is a good way to have your whole body scratched off your host.

But let’s assume that our pathogen has made it on a human, found a place where it can grow, found enough food to live there (presumably us), has matched our immune system, is small enough that we haven’t been able to physically remove it (think algae), and/or made it to an internal part of body like our lungs where we have a harder time getting rid of it. After doing all that, it has to grow to the point where it can get back out of bodies, and then back into another human and start over. A prion-like pathogen would also have to replicate to significant enough numbers to be transmitted host to host. Transmission is a very difficult process, and as Miguel points out, normally requires a good deal of species dependent specialization and adaption

In summary:

I have hard time imaging how a plant, even a small one like alga, could undergo enough selective pressure to become an infectious agent. It would be further complicated by that fact that you were eating it in your question, which means it would have to contend with the GI track. The genetic distance makes a prion like pathogen highly improbable if not outright impossible. Toxins, however, are in great abundance in the plant world, and seem to be a good way to get animals to leave you alone.

When I think about plant toxins, I always like to think of the Sumac family. Cashews evolved to be delicious and were cultivated for it, poison ivy evolved to be painful and is destroyed for it, and when we think of the family, we always think of the pain first. [Sorry I know that’s entirely off topic, feel free to delete via edit.]

(1) Johnson CJ, Pedersen JA, Chappell RJ, McKenzie D, Aiken JM (2007) Oral Transmissibility of Prion Disease Is Enhanced by Binding to Soil Particles. PLoS Pathog 3(7): e93. doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.0030093

(2) Bartelt-Hunt SL, Bartz JC (2013) Behavior of Prions in the Environment: Implications for Prion Biology. PLoS Pathog 9(2): e1003113. doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.1003113

(3) Liberski PP. (2012) Historical overview of prion diseases: a view from afar. Folia Neuropathol. 50(1):1-12.


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