Star Anise, Shikimic Acid, and The Flu

This is shikimic acid. It is needed to make Tamiflu (oseltamivir), a common flu medication. Also in the picture is Chinese star anise, which is currently the source of the overwhelming majority of shikimic acid on the market.

Due to shortages of star anise and fear of pandemic flu, scientists are searching for alternative sources of shikimic acid. One possibility is genetically modified bacteria. Shikimic acid is a natural product, which means there are enzymes in the star anise plant that synthesize the shikimic acid from scratch. Scientists can take the DNA that codes for those enzymes and put it in a type of bacteria. That bacteria would then be able to make shikimic acid for us! It would be the same exact molecule, just made through fermentation.

Despite the relation to oseltamivir (see below), shikimic acid cannot be used to fight the flu. Oseltamivir sticks to a protein on the outside of the flu virus and prevents new baby flu viruses from bursting out of your cells to infect more cells. Shikimic acid doesn’t stick to this protein (which is why scientists go through so much trouble to make oseltamivir). If some wellness nut tells you to brew some star anise to cure the flu, know that it is 🐎💩. 😉 💕


Sources:
(Ghosh et al 2012) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biotechadv.2012.03.001

(Rawat et al 2013) https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00253-013-4840-y

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