The Sceptical Chymist | Crazy frogs

Published in Chemistry

A paper in PNAS has just caught my eye, because it emphasizes a problem common in natural product research – where do these funky molecules really originate?

This collaborative effort looks at alkaloids — including the synthetically challenging pumiliotoxins — that are isolated from Oophaga pumilio poison frogs. But these toxic amphibians don’t make the alkaloids themselves. It turns out that they get them by eating mites. What’s more, these mites contain lots of new alkaloids that hadn’t previously been discovered.

This reminded me of a story I once heard about another famous natural product, epibatidine, which was also isolated from a frog. Someone had the bright idea of farming the frogs, so that the precious compound could be harvested. But the farmed frogs didn’t have any epibatidine in their skins, because they hadn’t been eating the right food. Bang goes another brilliant idea…

So the next time you see a natural product synthesis, think of the story behind the compound, and the complex biological chains that originally led to it. Not forgetting of course, the unsung heroes who chase insects all over Costa Rica to work out the links of these chains.


PS If you’re interested in other tales of natural product isolation, have a look at this paper in Angewandte Chemie which reports the identification of Platencin (an antibiotic structurally related to platensimycin, which was reported in Nature last year).

Andrew Mitchinson (Associate Editor, Nature)

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