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Revealing Why Plants Don't Get Sunburn

Oct 30, 2014 11:41 AM EDT

Here's something you likely haven't thought about. Plants, just like you or I, have skin - just with a slightly different appearance and texture. So why is it that these organisms, which survive off getting as much sunlight as possible, don't ever get sunburn? A team of researchers now believe they have the answer, discovering a naturally produced "sunscreen" that coats leaves and shoots.

That's at least according to a study recently published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, which details how harsh ultraviolent light from the Sun can in fact harm plants.

Just as seen in humans, overexposure to ultraviolet radiation can not only burn, but cause serious damage to DNA in plants. As a result, the growth of a plant can be hindered if not properly protected by the shade of its neighbors and its own natural sunscreen.

It is obvious enough that plants are not secreting the same white stuff that we slop onto our backs during a day at the beach, so what exactly is this plant's sunscreen?

Chemist Timothy Zwier and colleagues at Purdue University found that plants produce special molecules, called sinapate esters, that appear to block ultraviolet-B (UVB) radiation from penetrating deeper into leaves where it might otherwise disrupt a plant's normal development.

In order to understand how exactly this worked, the research team converted the molecules into a gaseous state and fired (UVB) radiation at them using a laser. They found that sinapate esters are capable of soaking up radiation at every wavelength across the UVB spectrum. With such remarkable capabilities, a coating of the esters on plants doesn't even have to be thick, which is why it is difficult to notice on the leaves of most flora.

Whether or not these remarkable esters can be adapted for human sunblock purposes remains to be seen.

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