Imagine a substance created by your own body that could heal wounds, direct the growth of your organs, and even signal your friends to act in their own defense against a common threat. Imagine further that something with these superpowers invades your house every summer, growing up over fences and along porch rails. Or is growing in your garden at this very moment.

Sound like science fiction? Not for plants!

Jasmonates are molecules that were first isolated in the common jasmine plant, but are found in plants across the globe. They’re responsible for a wide variety of functions: ripening of fruit, producing pollen, inhibiting root growth, germinating seeds, flower development and nectar secretion.

In short, jasmonates can do a whole lot more for one plant than most people manage in a lifetime.

Researchers at Virginia Bioinformatics Institute are studying how jasmonates regulate stress in plants. Several experiments suggest that jasmonates are the primary means of dealing with stress, turning genes off and on to produce defensive responses to herbivorous insects or diseases.

For example, if the dreaded tomato hornworm is munching on your prized tomatoes, jasmonates are ultimately responsible for giving the caterpillar a good case of indigestion. Jasmonates carried from one leaf to another may also be indirectly responsible for signaling to other plants that an enemy insect has the munchies. The other plants can then ready their defenses against the hornworm’s attack.

Jasmonates are what make pumpkin vines coil and what makes bean seeds germinate. They’re why apples and oranges ripen and they help flowers produce the nectar that honeybees eat. They’re the primary punch in a plant’s arsenal when it comes to self-defense. Without them and their superpowers, life would be a lot less sweet!

By Tiffany Trent

Communications Director, Virginia Bioinformatics Institute