Cocaine is one of the most commonly used (and abused) plant-derived drugs in the world, but we have almost no modern information on how plants produce this complex alkaloid.
Coca plant (Erythroxylum coca) and the molecular structure of cocaine (grey: carbon, blue: nitrogen, red: oxygen, white: hydrogen). Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology/ D’Auria, Jirschitzka
Immunolabeling (green areas) of MecgoR, the enzyme catalyzing the penultimate step of cocaine biosynthesis. The picture shows the strong accumulation of the enzyme in a cross section of a very young E. coca leaf, which is still curled around the growing stem tip. Bar: 0,1 mm. Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology/ D’Auria, Jirschitzka
Plants commonly produce tropane and other alkaloids for protection against herbivores and other enemies. Species in seven plant families are known to produce tropane alkaloids, including the Brassicaceae (mustard family), Solanaceae (nightshade or potato family) and Erythroxylaceae (coca family). These families are not closely related to each other. For example, it is assumed that the last common ancestor of the Erythroxylaceae and the Solanaceae lived about 120 million years ago. But how similar are the tropane alkaloid biosynthetic pathways in these families? Was there a single original tropane alkaloid pathway which was lost in most other plant families during the course of evolution? Or, did tropane alkaloid biosynthesis arise independently on several different occasions?
Dr. Jan-Wolfhard Kellmann | Max-Planck-Institut
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