Thyme and oregano possess an anticancer compound that suppresses tumor development, but adding more thyme and oregano to your diet would not be significant enough to make a change. However, researchers at Purdue University report they have taken a step to unlock the compound’s power that may improve drug development.

The researchers mapped the compound’s biosynthetic pathway, and their findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in a paper titled, “The biosynthesis of thymol, carvacrol, and thymohydroquinone in Lamiaceae proceeds via cytochrome P450s and a short-chain dehydrogenase.”

“These plants contain important compounds, but the amount is very low and extraction won’t be enough,” said Natalia Dudareva, PhD, a distinguished professor of biochemistry in Purdue’s College of Agriculture, who co-led the project. “By understanding how these compounds are formed, we open a path to engineering plants with higher levels of them or to synthesizing the compounds in microorganisms for medical use.

“It is an amazing time for plant science right now. We have tools that are faster, cheaper, and provide much more insight. It is like looking inside the cell; it is almost unbelievable.”

“The monoterpene alcohols thymol, carvacrol, and thymohydroquinone are characteristic flavor compounds of thyme, oregano, and other Lamiaceae,” the researchers wrote. “These specialized metabolites are also valuable for their antibacterial, anti-spasmolytic, and antitumor activities.”

The researchers collaborated with researchers from Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in Germany and Michigan State University. The team of researchers has uncovered the biosynthetic pathway to thymohydroquinone.

“These findings provide new targets for engineering high-value compounds in plants and other organisms,” said Pan Liao, PhD, co-first author of the paper and a postdoctoral researcher in Dudareva’s lab. “Not only do many plants contain medicinal properties, but the compounds within them are used as food additives and for perfumes, cosmetics, and other products.”

“The intermediate formed in the pathway was not what had been predicted,” Liao said. “We found that the aromatic backbone of both thymol and carvacrol is formed from γ-terpinene by a P450 monooxygenase in combination with a dehydrogenase via two unstable intermediates, but not p-cymene, as was proposed.”

“We, as scientists, are always comparing pathways in different systems and plants,” Dudareva said. “We are always in pursuit of new possibilities. The more we learn, the more we are able to recognize the similarities and differences that could be key to the next breakthrough.”

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