The Wonderful World of Plant Phenolics: Scents, Spices, Medicinals, and Biofuels
Researchers in the laboratory of Norman Lewis, WSU professor and director of the Institute of Biological Chemistry, are dedicated to understanding the often complex biochemical processes involved in plant phenolic biosynthesis.
Here they identify how certain plants biosynthesize some of their essential oil components—from eugenol, the essence of cloves widely used as a bactericide and mild analgesic, to methyl chavicol, a characteristic flavor component of basil, to vanilla, the flavor or essence of the vanilla bean.
Researchers are also pursuing how plants such as the May apple and flaxseed produce compounds with cancer preventive properties.
Another target is nordihydroguaiaretic acid from the desert shrub known as creosote bush, which is showing extraordinary promise for treatment of cancers of the head and the neck.
An even larger effort is establishing how lignins—nature’s second most abundant biopolymers after cellulose—are formed, including identifying their role in plant biochemical mechanisms and in the structure of the plant cell wall.
This year, in collaboration with a previous student (David Gang) and researchers at University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Lewis’ team reported an exciting discovery regarding how plants make eugenol and methyl chavicol. “With that molecular knowledge in hand, we can devise new biotechnological ways to introduce such desirable characteristics into various plant species of agronomic importance,” Lewis said.