Botanical Pain Killers

September 24, 2008

Plants Make Aspirin When Under the Weather

Jessica Marshall, Discovery News

Sept. 19, 2008 — Plants make aspirin when they need an immune boost, according to new research, sending a form of the compound airborne to signal a health problem to the rest of the tree or to other trees.

The finding may help growers more readily identify plants under stress by monitoring for the airborne distress signal.

Researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. made the finding over a walnut tree grove in California. They used sensitive instruments to detect the organic compounds in the air over the grove at different locations, including different heights.

The researchers found levels of an unidentified compound that swamped the levels of the compounds they set out to look for.

“It was kind of a surprise to us because we weren’t really looking for this product,” said study lead author Thomas Karl. “We weren’t sure what we were seeing to begin with.”

The compound turned out to be methyl salicylate, a volatile form of salicylic acid. Salicylic acid was originally derived from willow bark and shown to have the pain- and fever-relieving effects known for aspirin. A modified form of salicylic acid, acetosalicylic acid, is now sold as the active ingredient in aspirin.

Salicylic acid is produced by plants when they are under stress like drought or attack by a fungus or insect. It travels through the plant’s vascular system and activates the plant’s version of an immune response.

Until the new study, nobody had detected the high values of the airborne version of salicylic acid, which the researchers believe is a way to send the stress signal farther and faster. Leaves on the stressed tree or on nearby trees can detect the methyl salicylate signal and convert it into the immune-response-triggering salicylic acid.

“It’s faster to send the volatile form to the other leaves, rather than sending through the plant,” Karl pointed out. “It might be a more effective way for the same tree to signal that’s what’s going on.”

The researchers observed spikes in methyl salicylate over the walnut grove after nighttime temperatures dipped low, suggesting the plants were reacting to cold stress. The peaks were higher during a dry period, pointing to combined stress of cold nighttime temperatures and mild drought.

The researchers published the work in Biogeosciences.

Although the instruments used by the researchers are rare, the team hopes that simpler methyl salicylate measurements could one day be made, giving farmers a simple way to detect the onset of a plant threat.

“Historically, when we’ve tried to understand whether plants were happy and healthy or experiencing drought or limited by nutrients or being attacked by insects, we have had to go out and do a lot of hard work,” said David Schimel, principal investigator and CEO of the National Ecological Observatory Network in Boulder, Colo., who was not part of the study. “You have to go out and collect leaves, or put out hundreds of insect traps.

“If we could substitute for that an analytical measurement that could measure these critical compounds, it would either replace or very strongly complement these traditional measurements that are somewhat indirect,” he added.

The research is also important for understanding atmospheric chemistry. Organic compounds in the atmosphere contribute to ozone and particle formation. The new finding identifies a previously overlooked contribution to the atmospheric total.

“People have realized over the years that we are still missing a fair amount of organic material that’s not accounted for,” Karl said. “In our research community we have almost a frenzy to find out how much we are off and how much we have accounted for.”


Photo Source:

“…He is Well-versed in every kind of creation.” [Qur’an 36:79]


One Response to “Botanical Pain Killers”

  1. Anonymous said


    Jazakallahu khair!


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