What fascinates you about plant natural product chemistry?

Plants are excellent chemists and fascinating organisms. I realized this early during my studies. However, if I were to recall when exaclty I became interested in the topic, I cannot really say it. I think that my first “experiments” in phytochemistry date back to when I was a kid. I used to wander in my grandma’s garden, collecting flowers and leaves, putting them in water and checking for changes in colour, smell, etc. I was also checking the effects of time of extraction and temperature (but for the latter I had to elude the adult supervision). Curious as I was, I also did some rough bioactivity tests. It was in second or third grade, when I noticed that by cutting a plant (which I now know being a member of the Euphorbiaceae family), there was some milky fluid (which I now recognize as latex) coming out from the stem. I decided to put it on the skin of my hands, arms, and face. Hmm…it did not go so well! After some time, I was all covered in blisters.
Despite this small accident, I remember having a lot of fun with my “experiments”.

Who would have thought back then that I would end up doing something similar in my professional life? Ok, before moving on, I need to state that nobody gets harmed anymore during my experiments, that I perform them with scientific rigor, and, luckily, I have awesome tools to understand what is going on. The things that did not change are my curiosity, the fun I have doing what I do, and how intrigued I am by the world of plant natural product chemistry. However, I am not going to tell you now why I am so fascinated, because we would need a lot of time. In fact, if you want to know this, just keep reading this blog.

Here, instead, we will read what some students of our lab (at DiSTABiF, University of Campania “Luigi Vanvitelli”) have to say on the matter.

Francesca Guzzo, Biologist and Research Fellow

To be honest, until a few years ago I kept myself at safe distance from plants. Today, however, I consider them the most fascinating living beings on our planet. The thing that made me change my mind was having to study a plant, Scrophularia trifoliata L. Thanks to “her”, I realized how full of resources and surprises plants are. I am not referring only to the crucial role they have based on their ability to carry out photosynthesis, but also to the long and perfect evolutionary process that led them to survive up to these days. In silence, plants grow, reproduce, defend themselves from predators and “know” how to compete. How do you think they can do all of these? Thanks to the constant production of phytochemicals, better known as secondary metabolites, through which plants communicate with other plants and insects. However, this is not the end: plants are also beneficial for humans. These benefits go from folk medicine remedies to nowadays characterization of compounds that may have antimicrobial, antiviral and antioxidant activity. A plant can save you, despite apparently standing still. We can also brag of having achieved evolutionary success, but the truth is that man realizes his limits by taking care of plants. We need them rather than the other way around.

Angela Rennella, Master Student in Biology

Do you think a plant does not move? I do not think so!
As a child, I could not ever imagine that they not only move, but they also somehow breathe, communicate, live!
When you approach something you just had seen from the outside, your curiosity starts growing and at a certain point you choose to turn your curiosity into a passion, and then it becomes your inspiration.
Plants are complex organisms just like men: they can be “tame”, “cruel”, scented, smelly, colourful, or not, but they have their mechanisms, their needs, their defences and so… their chemistry. A perfect combo: nature and chemistry. Through this science you can try to understand anything plants are “trying to tell you” and even what they tell each other… yes, they do communicate with each other! Did you know?
Plants always have an “identity”: we can discover it through chemistry and at the end…I think that they will seem more similar to you than you have ever thought.
“Plants are the original chemists. Their sophistication makes DuPont and Monsanto look like little kids with chemistry sets.”— Allen Lacy

Carolina Laiso, Pharmacy Student

The world of plant natural product chemistry is fascinating to me, due to the significant role that plant derived chemicals have on the pharmaceutical sciences. Plants are a rich and never-ending source of bioactive compounds useful to humankind to fight different and numerous pathologies. We owe a lot to our plant “friends”, since they produce these chemicals in order to defend themselves, while men extract and use them for their own benefit. However, we can also get inspired by plants and try to synthesize these chemicals in the lab. We really need to take care of plants, since they can give us a lot!

Giuliano di Giuseppe, Pharmacy Student

How often did you wonder about the explanation to a phenomenon and were left without an answer? It happens very often to me. This was the driving force that led me to deepen my knowledge about chemistry and in particular about plant natural product chemistry. When we talk about plants, we tend to picture them as still organisms, whose only duty is to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. Alternatively, we think about them as a food source. We could not be more wrong! A plant is much more than this! A plant can adapt, communicate with the environment and it never ceases surprising us for the endless resources it has! This is exactly the beauty of plant natural product chemistry, “empathizing” with the plant you are going to study and understanding the mechanisms and the reasons for the biosynthesis of a given compound. Also, characterizing the structure and exploiting its potentialities in order to contribute to the research in other fields. There are great examples of scientists that owe their breakthroughs to plants. For example, Brown who discovered Brownian motion, Schleide and Schwann with the cellular theory, Mendel with the foundations of genetics, etc.
I love phytochemistry. It is nature, life, everyday life!

Perhaps this post could have also been titled “first approaches to plant natural product chemistry”.These reported here are the thoughts of students that recently started discovering this wonderful world. They are enthusiastic about this topic, even more than their words can express!

This time I would like to close with a question: What fascinates you about plant natural product chemistry?
Feel free to leave your answer below! 😉

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