Glyphosate is most commonly used in agriculture, the Environmental Sciences Europe study found. Farmers use practical herbicide to kill weeds that compete with crops for sunlight, water, and soil nutrients. Glyphosate has been used more than any other agriculture chemical, with an estimated 8.6 billion kilograms (19 billion lbs.) of it sprayed since 1974 to help grow everything from peppers to oranges.
When the chemical is sprayed onto a plant, it usually seeps into the plant via the leaves, said Ramdas Kanissery, a weed scientist at the University of Florida in Immokalee, Florida. From there, glyphosate can travel from cell to cell and spread to the stem and the roots, infecting the entire plant.
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Glyphosate is derived from an amino acid called glycine and plant cells treat glyphosate as though it were amino acid. Plants use amino acids to build things like enzymes and proteins that it needs in order to grow, through a process called amino acid synthesis.
"But once glyphosate ends up in an amino acid synthesis cycle, it will mess up everything," Kanissery said. That's because glyphosate interferes with a crucial enzyme production pathway that prevents the plant from creating necessary proteins, and within two to three weeks of glyphosate exposure, the plant will die.
People also use glyphosate at home to tame weeds, and some cities spray the chemical in their parks and other green spaces to control invasive plants that can take over and push out native plants. However, many local governments, such as the city of Seattle, Washington, have ended this practice as people have become increasingly concerned about the chemical's safety.