Flower Power

It’s spring, or almost spring, and our minds are daydreaming of colorful tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths. Flowers lift our mood, power pollinators, and provide us with oxygen. They also contain a variety of bioactive compounds that are used in everything from cancer medicines to root beer floats.

Plants are a treasure trove of novel chemical compounds. Unable to move, these living beings have developed a range of ingenious and chemical-driven strategies to defend themselves, communicate, and adapt to changing environmental conditions. Scientists study these chemicals to better understand plants and to unlock new uses for these chemicals. Here are five amazing chemicals that are improving and saving human lives and the flowers that they were originally found in.

Digoxin: A Heart-Saving Medication

Digoxin is a medication that has been saving lives since its discovery in 1930. This drug is used to treat heart failure and certain arrhythmias by increasing the strength and efficiency of the heart’s contractions. The active ingredient in digoxin comes from the foxglove plant, Digitalis lanata. In the US, approximately 1 million prescriptions for digoxin were placed in 2020. This drug has proven to be incredibly effective at treating heart conditions, and its widespread use is a testament to its life-saving properties.

Digitalis lanat. gailhampshire from Cradley, Malvern, U.K, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Vincristine: A Cancer-Fighting Drug

Vincristine is a chemotherapy drug used to treat several types of cancer, including Hodgkin’s disease, acute lymphocytic leukemia, acute myeloid leukemia, neuroblastoma, and small cell lung cancer. This drug works by interfering with the formation of microtubules, which leads to cell death during metaphase because the chromosomes can’t properly separate. This type of cell death disproportionately affects rapidly dividing cancer cells. While vincristine does have serious side effects, such as low white blood cell count, nausea, and hair loss, it has also saved countless lives. This drug was first isolated in 1961 from the Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus).

Catharanthus roseus. Md. Siddiq Hasan2, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Morphine: The Potent Painkiller

No discussion of medicinal plants would be complete without mentioning morphine, the strong opiate found in poppies (Papaver somniferum). This powerful painkiller has been around since the Roman Empire, and the first written record of its use dates back to 1522 BC. Morphine was first isolated in 1804 by the German pharmacist Friedrick Seturner. Today it remains an important tool for treating severe pain. However, the use of morphine is highly regulated due to its high potential for abuse and addiction. 

Papaver somniferum. tanja niggendijker from apeldoorn, the netherlands, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Luteolin: An Allergy-Fighting Remedy

The flavone luteolin comes from the plant Reseda luteola and was first isolated in 1829. This compound has a long history of use as a popular yellow dye, dating back to the first millennium. Today, luteolin is also a popular herbal remedy that may lessen allergy symptoms and has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Animal studies of luteolin have also shown that it may also help reduce anxiety – at least in mice!

Reseda luteola. Tigerente, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Saponins: Root Beer is Just the Beginning 

Saponins are a large group of compounds originally found in and named after the soapwort plant (genus Saponaria). They have since been discovered in several other plant genera including Sapindaceae and Aceraceae. These compounds have a wide range of uses, from making soap to fire extinguishing foam. One of the most popular uses of saponins is in the food and beverage industry. For example, saponins are an essential ingredient in the production of root beer, which gives the drink its unique flavor and foamy texture. Additionally, saponins may have medical applications. Scientists are investigating their use in treating dyslipidemia and diabetes.

Saponaria officinalis. Victor M. Vicente Selvas, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s amazing to think that these lifesaving and life-improving compounds are all around us, just waiting to be discovered. Did you know that the world’s oldest botanic garden, located in Padua, Italy, was created as a living pharmacy and classroom for medieval medical students? Today, this tradition continues in research and development branches of public gardens around the world, such as the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens. Who knows what amazing discoveries await us in the future?

Ready to discover more? Check out this Kew Garden’s blog post about plant drug discovery in some of the most remote places on the planet, this Edvotek posts about exploring plant chemicals using paper chromatography at home, or our photosynthesis experiment which separates plant pigments using thin layer chromatography.

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