Plant scientists find recipe for anti-cancer compound in herbs

Natalia Dudareva is a professor in the College of Agriculture. The biosynthetic pathway of an anti-cancer compound found in oregano and thyme was mapped by a team of researchers. The photo was taken by Tom Campbell.

Adding more to your tomato sauce isn't enough to get the benefit of the anti-cancer compound found in thyme and oregano. The amount of the compound created or synthesizing the compound for drug development is the key to unlocking the power of these plants.

The first step toward using the compound in pharmaceuticals was achieved by researchers at the University of Purdue.

"These plants contain important compounds, but the amount is very low and we need more," said Natalia Dudareva, who co-led the project. Understanding how these compounds are formed opens a path to engineering plants with higher levels of them or to synthesizing the compounds in microorganisms for medical use.

It is a great time for plant science. We have cheaper and faster tools that give more insight. It is like looking inside a cell.

The flavor compounds of the plants are called thymol, carvacrol and thymohydroquinone. They have a number of properties that are beneficial to human health. The anti-cancer properties of thymohydroquinone are of particular interest to the director of the Center for Plant Biology.

The team uncovered the entire biosynthetic pathway to thequinone, including the formation of its precursors and short-lived intermediate compounds, in collaboration with scientists from Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in Germany and Michigan State University.

She said that the findings alter previous views of the formation of this class of compounds, which only a few biosynthetic pathways have been discovered in other plants. The work is detailed in a paper.

Pan Liao is a researcher in the lab. He was the first author of a paper about the synthesis of some compounds found in some herbs. The photo was taken at the Boilermaker University by Tom Campbell.

Pan Liao, a researcher in the lab of Dudareva, said that the findings provide new targets for engineering high-value compounds in plants and other organisms. The compounds within many plants are used as food Additives and for perfumes, cosmetics and other products.

Now that the pathway is known, plant scientists can either develop cultivars that produce more of the beneficial compounds or incorporate them into yeast for production. The latter method involves a process of fermentation to get the valuable compounds.

The fermentation process is important to food and beverage, pharmaceutical, and biofuels production and that's why Purdue now offers a fermentation science major.

More than 80,000 genes from plant tissue samples were screened and identified the genes needed for production of thequinone. The team identified the biosynthetic pathway based on what was known about the compound structure.

The intermediate was not what was predicted. We found that the aromatic backbone of both carvacrol and thymol is formed from -terpinene by a P450 monooxygenase in combination with a dehydrogenase, but not p-cymene, as was proposed.

More pathways are being discovered now because of the ability to use a high-throughput method for analyzing genes.

She said that the results of this research will be useful for plant sciences research.

Scientists are always comparing pathways in plants and systems. We are always looking for new possibilities. The more we learn, the more we can see similarities and differences that could be key to the next breakthrough.

The biosynthesis of carvacrol, thymol, and thymohydroquinone in the Lamiaceae is done via the cytochrome P450s and a short-chain dehydrogenase.

The National Academy of Sciences has a journal.

A recipe for anti-cancer compound in herbs was found by plant scientists.

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