Nov 06 2007

Stand Tall for Phenols

Published by Brian at 10:37 pm under the_secrets, science, agriculture, biology

I’ve suggested before that plants are the ultimate selfish genies. Or geniuses. Red queens in green drag. One day soon, I swear, I’m going to get around to explaining what I mean by that and once and for all answer the question, Who cultivates whom?

In the mean time, here’s a tantalizing tidbit that underscores just how dependent we are on plants. Norm Lewis is a scientist at Washington State University’s Institute for Biological Chemistry. I’m a news writer for WSU and, more particularly, for the College of Ag, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences, of which the IBC is a part. Lewis’s work interests me professionally, since I’m paid to be interested, but also because it’s straight up cool: I’ve learned from these scientists to never turn my back on a plant, much less an entire monocropping field of them.

PhenylalanineLewis and his crew of researchers, in the words of a Newswise press release,

has cloned six genes coding for different forms of the enzyme arogenate dehydratase (ADT), which converts a compound called arogenate into phenylalanine.

A description of phenylalanine’s fate underscores its central role in terrestrial plant life and the importance of the enzymatic reaction that produces it.

Phenylalanine is converted into phenolic compounds that are the building blocks of many of the plant world’s most distinctive and important substances, including the pigments in flower petals and chemicals that protect leaves, stems and bark from ultraviolet radiation. Perhaps the best-known end product of phenols is the one that allows trees to stand upright.

But, the release continues,

Phenylalanine is more than a precursor to other important compounds. Since it is an amino acid, it is used as a building block itself in the production of proteins. That happens in animals as well as in plants; humans and other mammals, however, can’t produce phenylalanine. We obtain it by breaking down proteins in the food we eat—either plant material, or the meat of animals that ate plants.

We’re getting close to the big-bang heartbeat of the living world here or, at least, to identifying a strand that weaves all life together.

Lewis said our reliance on plants to make phenylalanine means the reactions that produce it are as crucial to our survival as they are to that of plants.

“If these don’t exist, we don’t exist. It’s as simple as that,” he said.

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