A minty-fresh solution: Using a menthol-like compound to activate plant immune mechanisms

by Tokyo University of Science

Although plants may look fairly inactive to casual observers, research into plant biology has shown that plants can send each other signals concerning threats in their local environments. These signals take the form of airborne chemicals, called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), released from one plant and detected by another, and plant biologists have found that a diverse class of chemicals called terpenoids play a major role as airborne danger signals.

Past studies have shown that soybean and lima bean plants both release terpenoid signals that activate defense-related genes in neighboring plants of the same species, and this chemically induced gene activation can help the plants protect themselves from threats like herbivorous pests.

In recent years, scientists have realized that the capacity of these chemical signals to boost plant defense mechanisms could make them useful pest control tools for agriculture and horticulture. One such scientist is Prof. Gen-ichiro Arimura of the Tokyo University of Science, Japan. Prof. Arimura notes that “the development of agricultural technology to date has been largely reliant on the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, which has resulted in environmental pollution and the destruction of ecosystems.” As a greener alternative to pesticides, terpenoid signaling molecules may help farmers continue their production of vital foodstuffs while lessening the associated environmental costs.

In pursuit of this goal, Prof. Arimura and his colleagues chose to investigate the terpenoid compound menthol, which is derived from mint leaves and can activate plant immune systems. The aim of this project, which the researchers describe in an article recently published in the journal Plant Molecular Biology, was to develop compounds that are structurally similar to menthol but improve upon menthol’s ability to activate plant immune systems. The researchers therefore experimented with chemically modifying menthol by attaching amino acids, which are a structurally diverse set of compounds that living cells use to construct proteins. In total, the researchers synthesized six different menthol derivatives with attached amino acids.

> Source: PHYS.ORG