Plants Communicate Through Air, Make Own Painkillers

By | September 18, 2008

When you have a headache, you take a couple aspirin, but when plants get stressed out, they just make their own.

Scientists had known that plants in laboratories produce a chemical called methyl salicylate — a form of the painkiller aspirin — when stressed out, but they had never detected it in plants out in nature.

A team of scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo., discovered by accident plants in the wild emitting methyl salicylate. They set up instruments last year in a walnut grove near Davis, Calif., to monitor plant emissions of certain volatile organic compounds (or VOCs). VOCs emitted by plants can actually combine with industrial emissions and contribute to smog.

To their surprise, the NCAR scientists found that the emissions of VOCs their instruments recorded in the atmosphere included methyl salicylate.

They noticed that the methyl salicylate emissions increased dramatically when the plants, already stressed by a local drought, experienced unseasonably cool nighttime temperatures followed by large temperature increases during the day.

Scientists think that the methyl salicylate has two functions: stimulating a process similar to the immune response in animals that helps plants resist and recover from disease, and acting as a form of chemical communication to warn neighbors of threats.

“These findings show tangible proof that plant-to-plant communication occurs on the ecosystem level,” said study team member Alex Guenther. “It appears that plants have the ability to communicate through the atmosphere.” – livesci

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