The uptake was especially rapid in dense forests and most evident near the tops of forest canopies, which accounted for as much as 97 percent of the oVOC uptake that was observed.
Karl and his colleagues then tackled a follow-up question: How do plants absorb such large quantities of these chemicals?
The scientists moved their research into their laboratories and focused on poplar trees. The species offered a significant advantage in that its genome has been sequenced.
The team found that when the study trees were under stress, either because of a physical wound or because of exposure to an irritant such as ozone pollution, they began sharply increasing their uptake of oVOCs.
At the same time, changes took place in expression levels of certain genes that indicated heightened metabolic activity in the poplars.
The uptake of oVOCs, the scientists concluded, appeared to be part of a larger metabolic cycle.
Plants can produce chemicals to protect themselves from irritants and repel invaders such as insects, much as a human body may increase its production of white blood cells in reaction to an infection.
But these chemicals, if produced in enough quantity, can become toxic to the plant itself.
In order to metabolize these chemicals, the plants start increasing the levels of enzymes that transform the chemicals into less toxic substances.
At the same time, as it turns out, the plant draws down more oVOCs, which can be metabolized by the enzymes.
"Our results show that plants can actually adjust their metabolism and increase their uptake of atmospheric chemicals as a response to various types of stress," says Chhandak Basu of the University of Northern Colorado, a co-author.
"This complex metabolic process within plants has the side effect of cleansing our atmosphere."
Once they understood the extent to which
|Contact: Cheryl Dybas|
National Science Foundation