Plants appear to self-medicate by producing their own aspirin when stressed

You might find yourself reaching for a painkiller for a headache, and it seems plants do something similar: when stressed by the dangers around them, plants are able to produce their own aspirin.

A new study takes a closer look at this particular self-defense mechanism in plants and how the production of aspirin’s active metabolite – salicylic acid – is regulated.

Where salicylic acid has been used by humans for centuries as a treatment for pain and inflammation, in plants it plays a fundamental role in signaling, regulating and defending against pathogens.

Produced in chloroplasts (the tiny green organelles where the process of photosynthesis takes place), it is usually generated in response to stress.

“It’s like plants use a painkiller for pain, just like us,” says plant biologist Wilhelmina van de Ven of the University of California, Riverside (UCR).

To better understand the complex chain of reactions that plants go through when stressed, van de Ven and his team performed biochemical analyzes on plants mutated to block the effects of key stress signaling pathways.

Environmental stresses produce reactive oxygen species (ROS) in all living organisms. An example you may be familiar with is sunburn on your skin if you spend too much time in direct sunlight without any sunscreen.

In the case of plants, these stresses include insect pests, drought and excessive heat. While high levels of ROS in plants can be lethal, smaller amounts have an important safety feature – and so regulation is essential.

The researchers used Rockcress or Arabidopsis as a model plant for experiments. They focused on an early warning molecule called MEcPP, which has also been observed in malaria bacteria and parasites.

It appears that when MEcPP accumulates in a plant, it triggers a chemical reaction and response, which includes salicylic acid.

This knowledge could help us modify plants to be more resilient to environmental hazards in the future.

“At non-lethal levels, ROS are like an emergency call to action, enabling the production of protective hormones such as salicylic acid,” says UCR plant breeder Jin-Zheng Wang. “ROS is a double-edged sword.”

“We would like to be able to use the knowledge gained to improve crop resistance. This will be crucial for the food supply in our increasingly hot and bright world.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the MEcPP molecule and its function, but understanding how this mechanism works could help scientists harness it for their own purposes: producing plants that are better able to cope with stresses and constraints.

We know that plants, as well as animals, are under increasing pressure from a warming world, and it’s unclear how many species will be able to survive as average temperatures continue to climb.

As the researchers point out, the stresses examined in this study – responses to high heat, constant sunlight and lack of water – are all being experienced by plants around the world right now…and of course, if the plants are in trouble, so are we.

“These impacts go beyond our diet,” says molecular biochemist Katayoon Dehesh of UCR.

“Plants purify our air by sequestering carbon dioxide, provide shade for us, and provide habitat for many animals. The benefits of boosting their survival are exponential.”

The research has been published in Scientists progress.

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