Researchers at John Innes Centre in the UK have shed light on how catnip – a plant from the genus Nepeta and also known as catmint - produces the chemical that sends cats into a state of wanton abandon. The remarkable effect catnip has on cats is well known thanks to the scores on online videos showing pets enjoying its intoxicating highs. The substance that triggers this state of feline ecstasy is called nepetalactone, a type of chemical called a terpene. This simple, small molecule is part of an unusual chain of events, not previously seen by chemists. The researchers believe that understanding the production of these nepetalactones could help them recreate the way that plants synthesize other chemicals like vinblastine, which is used for chemotherapy. This could lead to the ability to create these useful medicines more efficiently and quickly than we are currently able to harvest them from nature. Usually in plants, for example peppermint, terpenes are formed by a single enzyme. In their paper published online on December 10, 2018 in Nature Chemical Biology, the John Innes researchers report that, in catnip, terpenes are formed in a two-step process; an enzyme activates a precursor compound which is then acted on by a second enzyme to produce the substance of interest. The article is titled “Uncoupled Activation and Cyclization in Catmint Reductive Terpenoid Biosynthesis.” This two-step process has previously never been observed, and the researchers also expect something similar is occurring in the synthesis of anti-cancer drugs vincristine and vinblastine from Madagascan periwinkle, Catharanthus roseus, and elsewhere in olive and snapdragon. In the publication, the team describe the process by which catmint produces nepetalactone in microscopic glands on the underside of its leaves.
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