These are the dried fruit of the sweet gum tree that we painted metallic to decorate for Thanksgiving. This tree is a huge pain in the a$@ because of these spikey balls, but they sure are beautiful alien looking things. The tiny little seeds inside, though all over our apartment now, are actually a good source of shikimic acid, the starting material to make Tamiflu (oseltamivir), the drug used to treat the flu.
Currently, the pharmaceutical industry uses star anise as their main source of shikimic acid. Because of the danger of pandemic flu, they are looking for alternative ways to get shikimic acid so there isn’t a shortage of Tamiflu. Another option beside star anise and these pointy little ankle rollers are genetically modified E.coli. The DNA code for the enzymatic pathway to make the compound is inserted into the E.coli, then you can purify the compound, then start to make Tamiflu. It’s amazing we have the capabilities to do these things!