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Natural products: Current research

Discussion of important areas of current research in plants and the search for new antibiotics to combat problems with resistance.

Biochemical methods will provide key advances in assisting healthy living and in improving pharmaceutical technologies. Over the next steps of this course, we highlight this by discussing the importance of natural products in relation to a few key topics.

Later this week we describe how many of our important medicines are natural products or are related to them. But first we will discuss the importance of natural products in the foods we eat. To see further examples of research about natural products in food that is being undertaken in the UK, see the associated video that has been produced by the BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council).

Agricultural Biotechnology

Biochemical methods are used in agricultural biotechnology for production of plants containing enhanced levels of naturally produced compounds that are beneficial for us when eaten. Molecules such as carotenoids and flavonoids are found widely in plants and crops and have been demonstrated to have helpful physiological effects within our body when consumed, such as lowering cholesterol and offering anti-oxidant properties. Not only do scientists breed and select for crops that are naturally higher in such compounds, many biochemists are using genetic techniques to manipulate plant DNA, introducing genes encoding enzymes involved in biosynthesising these cellular, healthy compounds. This production of “super crops” is yielding fruits, vegetables and grains abundant in key phytonutrients, essentially “packed full of goodness”, promoting healthier lifestyles.

As shown in the video, an example is highlighted by research undertaken at the Norwich Research Park, where scientists constructed a “super broccoli” rich in glucoraphanin. Glucoraphanin is a glucosinolate; secondary metabolites abundant in cruciferous vegetables, which offer health benefits when taken into our bodies through the digestive system. Glucoraphanin in particularly advantageous in humans when consumed as it is enzymatically broken down into molecules that confer anti-cancer and antimicrobial properties. Furthermore, research by the team demonstrated it slows arthritis onset, reduces cholesterol levels and detoxifies harmful reactive oxygen species generated in cells via natural metabolic processes.

By combining traditional crop-breeding methods techniques developed in genetics, organic chemistry and biochemistry, these researchers engineered Beneforte broccoli (“super broccoli”), which contains three times the natural level of this important glucoraphanin compound.

The hope that comes with these types of food are that they will bring health benefits to people who consume them in smaller amounts. Some of these advances may allow crops to be grown in areas that have previously been challenging, such as areas that are poverty stricken or those experiencing reduced crop yields due to natural factors such as drought.

© UEA and Biochemical Society, 2018. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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Biochemistry: the Molecules of Life

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