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Atmospheric Aspirin

October 15, 2008

Trees release an aspirin-like compound under stress.


Aspirin in the atmosphere…I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

When people feel stressed, their hearts start beating fast, they breathe harder, and their stomach ties in knots. When trees get stressed out, they spew chemicals into air. Thomas Karl and colleagues at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, measured the myriad compounds given off by a walnut tree plantation. Karl says one chemical was methyl salicylate – a compound related to aspirin – previously only detected in the lab.

And what was also surprising to us is that what we could see from our measurements is not just one tree responded to it, but the whole forest triggered the formation of that compound.

Karl says the aspirin-like compound is a stress signal plants use to communicate with each other. And monitoring it might give farmers an early warning for when their crops are under attack. I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the science society.