MAY 07, 2020 1:15 PM PDT

What can we learn from catnip?

Findings from a recent study published in Science Advances report new insights on the evolution of a commonly enjoyed plant: catnip. The findings give significant context on how plants lose and regain defensive compounds, according to study co-author Pamela Soltis, Florida Museum of Natural History curator and University of Florida distinguished professor.

"If we know how evolutionarily flexible a trait is, we can hypothesize about how easy or difficult it might be to modify the trait in another species through plant breeding, genetic engineering or gene editing," she said. "It might be possible to make a crop more resistant to pests if we know that a close relative re-evolved a compound that had previously been lost."

Photo: Pixabay

The study suggests that the chemical in catnip that makes cats crazy, nepetalactone, originally evolved to defend the plan from pests. Nepetalactone is in a class of chemicals called iridoids, which act as insect repellants.  

"Understanding these plants' underlying biochemical pathways is key to using them for human health," elaborated study co-author Douglas Soltis, referring to iridoid-derived cancer treatments. 

Using comparative genomics, the researchers traced the ancestral genes and enzymes of the deletion of a gene within the ancestor plant of catnip that resulted in the loss of iridoid production about 55-65 million years ago. They then traced the reemergence of a new unique chemical pathway that resulted in nepetalactone 20 million years ago. 

"There is a lot of evolutionary back-and-forth in all sorts of characteristics in plants - such as the origin of succulence in cacti, jade plants and aloe, or multiple derivations of red or purple pigments in distantly related species," Pamela Soltis said. "But whenever the 'same' thing re-evolves, it always turns out that it has done so slightly differently - always with a 'twist.'"

"As the mint family migrated across Eurasia, semi-arid habitats could have imposed new selective pressures," concluded Douglas Soltis. "Maybe iridoids are more effective as defense compounds in those environments. That can't explain the origin of the new pathway, but it can explain the selection for it once it originates."

Sources: Science Advances, Eureka Alert

About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
You May Also Like
SEP 26, 2020
Microbiology
Eliminating Biofilms with Green Tea-Derived Nanobots
SEP 26, 2020
Eliminating Biofilms with Green Tea-Derived Nanobots
Bacteria are everywhere in our world, and while the vast majority are harmless, some can cause dangerous infections. Bac ...
OCT 28, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
Paleontologists use scanning electron microscopy to analyze dinosaur egg fossils
OCT 28, 2020
Paleontologists use scanning electron microscopy to analyze dinosaur egg fossils
Scientists report using scanning electron microscopy to examine the surfaces of dinosaur egg fossils in order to determi ...
NOV 02, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
Eliminating CO2 at room temperature
NOV 02, 2020
Eliminating CO2 at room temperature
A new chemical process developed by researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) demonstrate ...
DEC 03, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
3-D Printed, Realistic Heart Model for Training Future Physicians
DEC 03, 2020
3-D Printed, Realistic Heart Model for Training Future Physicians
Building a realistic tissue model is critical for training young physicians and surgeons, and yet challenging due to the ...
DEC 27, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
The Coolest Molecules of 2020
DEC 27, 2020
The Coolest Molecules of 2020
2020 was a chaotic, stressful year for most, but it did not stop innovative ideas and creative scientific thinking from ...
JAN 11, 2021
Chemistry & Physics
Improving our understanding of aerosol nucleation
JAN 11, 2021
Improving our understanding of aerosol nucleation
New research published in Science Advances documents for the first time ever the early processes of aerosol formation. A ...
Loading Comments...