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Plant Sunscreen

September 27, 2005

One listener asks how plants protect themselves from damaging rays from the sun.


Sunscreen for trees. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Today’s Why Is It question comes from Mary Beckman of Idaho Falls. She asks how plants protect themselves from sun damage.

We turned to plant physiologist Jeff Volenec from Purdue, who told us that plants have special pigments that absorb and neutralize damaging ultraviolet light. Those pigments are usually masked by green chlorophyll, but you can see them in the fall when leaves change to bright reds, oranges, and yellows. Volenec says these pigments work a lot like the sunscreens we use.

JEFF VOLENEC (Purdue University):
If you look at the molecular structure of these accessory pigments that are found—the red and the yellows that you don’t see—the structures of those are very much like the compounds you find in sunscreens.

Call us at 1-800-why-isit with your science question. If we use it on the air, you’ll get a Science Update mug. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.