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Plants produce aspirin in response to environmental stress

A new study led by the University of California, Riverside (UCR) has found that plants are able to protect themselves from environmental hazards such as insects, heat, and drought by producing salicylic acid, which is the main ingredient in aspirin. Better understanding this process could help scientists make plants more resilient to the increased stresses caused by climate change. 

Although the scientists studied only a model plant called Arabidopsis, they hope to apply their understanding of stress responses in this plant’s cells to a variety of other plants, including those grown for food. 

“We’d like to be able to use the gained knowledge to improve crop resistance,” said study co-first author Jin-Zheng Wang, a plant geneticist at UCR. “That will be crucial for the food supply in our increasingly hot, bright world.”

Environmental stresses lead to the formation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) in all living organisms. For instance, without sunscreen on a hot, sunny day, the human skin produces ROS, which can cause burns and freckles. In plants, high levels of ROS can be lethal. However, the researchers found that, at low levels, ROS have an important function in plant cells.

“At non-lethal levels, ROS are like an emergency call to action, enabling the production of protective hormones such as salicylic acid. ROS are a double-edged sword,” Dr. Wang explained. 

By studying the responses of their model plant, the experts discovered that heat, unabated sunshine, or drought cause the sugar-making apparatus in plant cells to generate an initial alarm molecule known as MEcPP, which is also produced in organisms such as bacteria and malaria parasites. 

Accumulation of this molecule in plant cells triggers the production of salicylic acid, which initiates a chain of protective actions in the cells. “It’s like plants use a painkiller for aches and pains, just like we do,” said study co-first author Wilhelmina van de Ven, a plant biologist at UCR. 

“Because salicylic acid helps plants withstand stresses becoming more prevalent with climate change, being able to increase plants’ ability to produce it represents a step forward in challenging the impacts of climate change on everyday life,” said study senior author Katayoon Dehesh, a professor of Molecular Biochemistry at UCR.

“Those impacts go beyond our food. Plants clean our air by sequestering carbon dioxide, offer us shade, and provide habitat for numerous animals. The benefits of boosting their survival are exponential.”

The study is published in the journal Science Advances.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer  

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