How stressed plants produce their own aspirin

Plants protect themselves from environmental hazards such as insects, drought, and heat by producing salicylic acid, also known as aspirin. A new understanding of this process may help plants survive the increased stress caused by climate change.

Plants in the UCR lab change color in response to high light stress. (Jin Jing Wang/UCR)

UC Riverside scientists recently published a research paper in Science Advances that talks about how plants regulate salicylic acid production.

The researchers studied a model plant called Arabidopsis, but they hope to apply their understanding of stress responses in this plant’s cells to many other types of plants, including those grown for food.

“We would like to be able to use the knowledge gained to improve crop resistance,” said Jin-Zheng Wang, a UCR plant geneticist and co-first author on the new study. “This will be critical to the food supply in our increasingly hot and bright world.”

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Human skin produces reactive oxygen species in response to sunlight that causes freckles. (Maria Casinos/iStock/Getty)

Environmental stresses lead to the formation of reactive oxygen species, or reactive oxygen species, in all living organisms. Without sunscreen on a sunny day, human skin produces reactive oxygen species that cause freckles and burns. High levels of reactive oxygen species in plants are fatal.

As with many substances, the poison is in quantity. At low levels, reactive oxygen species play an important function in plant cells.

“At non-lethal levels, reactive oxygen species resemble an emergency call to action, enabling the production of protective hormones such as salicylic acid,” Wang said. “Ross is a double-edged sword.”

The research team discovered that heat, constant sunlight, or drought causes the sugar-making apparatus in plant cells to generate a primary alarm molecule known as MEcPP.

Going forward, researchers want to learn more about MEcPP, which is also produced in organisms such as bacteria and malaria parasites. The accumulation of MEcPP in plants leads to the production of salicylic acid, which in turn initiates a series of protective actions in cells.

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University of California scientists Wilhelmina van de Ven, Katyon Dehsch, Jin-Cheng Wang, who led the plant stress research. (UCR/Stan Lim)

“It’s like plants use a painkiller, just as we do,” said Wilhelmina van de Veen, a plant biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who is the first author of the study.

The acid protects the chloroplasts in plants, which are the site of photosynthesis, the process of using light to convert water and carbon dioxide into sugars for energy.

said Cation Dehsch, senior author of the research paper and UCR Distinguished Professor of Molecular Biochemistry.

“These effects go beyond our food. Plants clean the air by sequestering carbon dioxide, provide us with shade, and provide a home for many animals. The benefits to enhancing their survival are enormous,” she said.

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