Cocaine Creation Revealed
A group of biochemists have uncovered a crucial step that coca plants use to create cocaine. The scientists hope that by unlocking the drug's creation process, new anesthetic drugs can be created without addictive qualities.
"We need to have some idea how the plants are making it. If you understand the biochemistry, you might take away the bad properties and keep the anesthetic ones," said study co-author John D'Auria, a biochemist at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Germany.
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Cocaine is an illegal drug, but is chemically similar to many painkillers and anesthetics on the market today. It is derived from the coca plant, whose leaves many South Americans chew to relieve themselves of altitude sickness. South Americans, in fact, have cultivated the cocoa plant for 8,000 years.
The drug's illegal status makes it hard to study the actual plant and the process from which cocaine is created in nature. The team of researchers chose to study the group of flowering plants known as Solanaceae, which includes potatoes and nightshade.
Cocaine is a part of a group of compounds known as tropane alkaloids. Solanaceae plants also produce tropane alkaloids, but D'Auria and his team realized that they were using different enzymes.
"Another thing is that the roots of Solanaceae make tropane alkaloids. Coca does it in the leaves, which is a huge difference," D'Auria said. "That means nature has found two very different ways to make very similar compounds, which I think is extremely impressive."
By grinding up coca leaves, the team was finally able to pinpoint the genes and enzymes that allow the cocaine molecule to bind with benzoic acid, the second to last step in the entire process.
The scientists hope to finally pinpoint the last step of the cocaine creation process in coca plants and publish their findings.
They are also interested in why the coca plant creates such a complex molecule. Previous research has shown that cocaine could act as an insecticide, and D'Auria's team believes that looking at the plant's history and ancestors may reveal more about the plant and how and why cocaine came about.