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Plant Terpenoids for Human Health: a chemical and genomic approach to identify and produce bioactive compounds

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Plant power in the bioactive compounds arena

Plants provide a massive pool of compounds that form the basis of many therapeutic drugs. An EU-funded project scoured the tissues of two wild flowering plants for terpenoids, an astonishingly diverse group of molecules, some of which show promise in the treatment of cancer and central nervous system disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.


Look on any uncultivated hillside and you are likely to find medicinal plants. In particular, feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) can both be found growing wild in southern Europe, and feverfew, with its cold tolerance, is indigenous throughout northern Europe. Both feverfew and rosemary produce chemicals of the terpenoid class that are well known for a variety of health-promoting properties such as their anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective and anti-cancer abilities. The European-backed TERPMED project focuses on two types of terpenoids that can be isolated from feverfew and rosemary: sesquiterpene lactones (SLs) and phenolic diterpenes (PDs). TERPMED scientists developed analytical tools that targeted SLs and PDs, as well as hundreds of other metabolites in order to establish the chemical diversity of these medicinal plant species. The SL and PD compounds were subsequently tested for biological activity. After determining where the molecules of interest were predominantly produced and stored in the plants, sequencing data was generated from ribonucleic acid (RNA) to pinpoint the genes and enzymes responsible for their production. The genes are used to reconstruct the biosynthetic pathways of the bioactive compounds in other plant systems, which will become pilot-scale green factories. The genetic sequences are also being used to generate new functional molecules using combinatorial biosynthesis approaches. All information about genes, enzymes and the hundreds of compounds isolated from the plants is stored in the project database, which is continuously updated with new data generated in the project and is available through the project website ( TERPMED achievements stand to be able to supply the pharmaceutical industry with new drugs to treat many diseases including central nervous system disorders and cancer.

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