How plants produce defensive toxins without harming themselves

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The larva of a tobacco hawkmoth Manduca sexta on a wild tobacco leaf: A detailed
The larva of a tobacco hawkmoth Manduca sexta on a wild tobacco leaf: A detailed chemical analysis of larval frass (small black ball) revealed how toxins are activated in the caterpillars, thus providing clues to the biosynthesis of the toxins in the plant, the reversed process in comparison to digestion, or as the scientists called it: the ’digestive duet’. © Anna Schroll
Plants produce toxic substances to defend themselves against herbivores. In a new study, scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena and the University of Münster were able to describe in detail the biosynthesis and exact mode of action of an important group of defensive substances, the diterpene glycosides, in wild tobacco plants. Diterpene glycosides allow plants to fend off herbivores. The study shows that these plant chemicals attack certain parts of the cell membrane. To protect themselves from their own toxins and to prevent their cell membranes from being damaged, tobacco plants store these substances in a non-toxic form which is synthesized in a very particular way. ...
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