"This paper is very interesting to me because we want to understand the sources and the sinks" of VOC pollutants, said researcher Qi Zhang of the University of California at Davis.
Of particular interest are particles, called secondary organic aerosols (SOAs), that are created by oxygenated VOCs. These SOAs are extremely important, Zhang said, because they can serve as seeds for cloud droplets, affect the way the atmosphere holds heat and they are major cause of disease and death in urban areas.
"(SOAs) are more deadly than car accidents," Zhang told Discovery News.
Now that the plant genes for grabbing VOCs are understood, there could be a future application for them in helping to clean cities, said Chhandak Basu of the University of Northern Colorado, a co-author on the paper. He envisions a day when plants with these VOC-sucking genes line highways, or other sources of pollution, sucking the harmful compounds out of the air.
As for the unusual cross pollination that produced the discovery, it was not easy, said Brenda Thornton, of the University of Northern Colorado, who identified the plant genes at work.