‘Aspirin’ for plants could help crops survive climate change

Just as we take aspirin to relieve a severe headache, plants also have their own form of medicine that helps in times of stress. Known as salicylic acid, this organic compound is naturally produced when plants encounter things like drought and heat, and a new study shows how this process could be harnessed to protect crops from rising temperatures world.

Salicylic acid occurs naturally in plants and is actually a precursor to aspirin, but it was used for pain relief purposes long before the synthetic drug hit pharmacy shelves. The ancient Egyptians stripped the leaves and bark of willows to ease their joint pain, and the Greek physician Hippocrates also noted the compound’s ability to relieve fever and pain.

The authors of this new study sought to better understand how salicylic acid is produced and the conditions that cause plants to produce it. This led them to chemicals called reactive oxygen species (ROS), which all living organisms produce in response to environmental stress. An example is human skin, which produces high levels of ROS in response to sunlight which leads to freckles and sunburn. But at lower, safer levels, ROS play an important role.

“At non-lethal levels, ROS are like an emergency call to action, enabling the production of protective hormones such as salicylic acid,” says study author Jin-Zheng Wang, from the University of California at Riverside. “ROS are a double-edged sword.”

Plant experiments show they change color in response to light stress


Through experiments on a model plant called Arabidopsis, scientists found that heat, relentless sun and drought conditions cause plant cells to produce an alarm molecule called MEcPP. As this molecule builds up, it triggers the production of salicylic acid, which then plays an important role in protecting chloroplasts, the organelles where photosynthesis takes place.

“It’s like plants use a painkiller for pain, just like we do,” said study author Wilhelmina van de Ven.

The hope is that this knowledge of how forms of salicylic acid can be applied to help plants survive climate change. This could result in longer-lasting crops that can withstand higher temperatures, but the benefits can extend to many other aspects of the environment.

“Because salicylic acid helps plants resist stresses that are increasingly prevalent with climate change, being able to increase the ability of plants to produce it represents a step forward in addressing the impacts of climate change. on everyday life,” said Katayoon Dehesh, lead author of the article. “These impacts go beyond our food. Plants purify our air by sequestering carbon dioxide, offer us shade and provide habitat for many animals. The benefits of increasing their survival are exponential.

The research was published in the journal Scientific advances.

Source: University of California, Riverside

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