- They are extremely creative.
- They can make really complex molecules.
- Some of their chemicals last a really long time – which is sometimes good and sometimes bad.
- They are really good at making polymers.
- They make some extremely toxic things.
Creative Natural Chemistry
|Taxol structure image by Calvero. Pacific Yew tree image by Jason Hollinger via creative commons. Azoxystrobin fungicide structure by Yikrazuul. Strobilurus tenacellus mushroom picture by Tatiana Bulyonkova at Mushroom Observer.
Complex Natural Chemistry
Some of the most abundant chemicals in nature are simple. Nearly 80% of the air we breathe is nitrogen in the form, N2 – just two nitrogen atoms bonded together. Nitrogen goes through natural cycles that are important to all living things but often stays in relatively uncomplicated forms like ammonia (NH3) or nitrate (NO3). On the other hand, natural chemicals can be complex, so much so that it would be challenging for even a skilled human chemist to make them.
One of these complex examples is called spinosad and it is produced by a microbe called an actinomycete. We have found this to be a particularly effective insecticide for use on crops yet quite benign for the environment and not toxic to people. The chemical company that produces this for farmers relies on the natural microbe to produce this complicated bit of chemistry.
Structure of Spinosyn image by Capaccio via creative commons.
Long-Lived Natural Chemicals
Most naturally occurring chemicals are part of a cycle in which chemicals combine, making a material, but then eventually break back down into basic constituents to begin the cycle again. Some naturally produced chemicals are relatively long-lived. This can be a good thing in the case of the chemicals that are found in the organic matter of a healthy, undisturbed soil. These are not just any plant or microbial product; they are specific compounds that slowly cascade through a series of breakdown products.
For instance, plants make a group of complex, phenolic chemicals, called lignin, which are important for strengthening their cell walls. Lignin is quite resistant to microbial breakdown, although some fungi can and do destroy it, even as they decompose wood. Lignin is a major component of what is termed humus – the component of soil that helps to buffer nutrients and retain moisture. When soils are converted from wild land to cultivation, there is a dramatic increase in the rate of breakdown of these chemicals and thus the release of the carbon dioxide.
Some long-lived, natural chemicals, however, are less desirable. Under low oxygen conditions, soil-dwelling microbes can interconvert forms of nitrogen (e.g. ammonia to nitrate or nitrate to nitrogen gas). In that process, they “accidentally” make some nitrous oxide (N2O). Nitrous oxide is around 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas because it lasts longer in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, human activity can exacerbate the production of this naturally generated chemical from farmed soils. Adjustments in farming practices can lead to a better balance of the production of natural chemicals that help or hurt greenhouse gas levels.
Fancy Polymeric Natural Chemicals
In the 1967 movie The Graduate, the character played by Dustin Hoffman is lectured about how the future is going to be all about plastics. Indeed, many people were excited in that era about polymers that chemists were developing, like nylon and polyester. These are based on long chains of monomers attached end to end.
Many of the most abundant natural chemicals on earth are also polymers, which are long chains made of simple sugar molecules. Depending on which sugar and how the sugars are linked together, the polymers result in anything from the cellulose that makes cotton fiber to wood or even the alginate from seaweed we use for thickening foods or the starch that is the primary energy source in foods like pasta, bread, rice or potatoes. Increasingly, we are tapping in to the enzymatic tools found in microbes in order to make polymers from renewable resources.
Variously Toxic Chemistries
Most people associate the term natural with the terms safe and wholesome. This impression has been created by decades of marketing, not by any understanding of the chemicals in nature. Many natural chemicals are perfectly benign; however, nature’s assortment of chemicals also includes many that are toxic by various mechanisms. Lots of plants make chemicals to protect themselves from being eaten or otherwise bothered. We have all heard about nasty plants like poison ivy or even lovely plants like the Colorado Columbine which are dangerous to eat.
|Aspergillus infected groundnut image from International Institute of Tropical Agriculture. Aflatoxin structure by Ju