New types of alkaloids can be produced using the Madagascar periwinkle plant, according to a paper published online this week in Nature Chemical Biology. With the pharmaceutical importance of alkaloids, for example the chemical morphine and those found in some general anesthetics, the method in this paper may enable further understanding about how alkaloids are made and help with potential drug development in the future.
A wide variety of alkaloids, which include chemicals such as caffeine and morphine, are naturally produced by plants. The chemical complexity of alkaloids, however, has made it difficult to chemically recreate naturally occurring and non-natural versions of these chemicals, and a lack of information about the enzymes that make alkaloids has made it difficult to produce them. Weerawat Runguphan and Sarah O’Connor have now made modified alkaloids in ‘hairy root’ plant cultures. In previous work, O’Connor and colleagues had created a modified version of a key enzyme in the alkaloid pathway that could use a wider variety of molecules. After inserting this modified enzyme into the DNA of the periwinkles, plants that were ‘fed’ non-natural molecules turned them into altered alkaloids.
These altered alkaloids have the potential to be important new leads for drug development.