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

Capsaicin Receptors and Labor Pain

Capsaicin and its various sources

This little bugger is capsaicin. My search through the literature for something interesting to say about this molecule was quite fruitful, but considering I have a lot of mama followers out there, I thought I would veer towards how its receptor is thought to be responsible for that motherf&$@er we call labor pain.

Capsaicin snuggles up with a protein called TRPV1, which is found on many nerves throughout our body. When the right stimulus activates TRPV1, we feel an intense burning pain. It is a nociceptor, which is fancy science speak for something that warns us when something bad is happening to our body, like getting burnt, frozen, cut, or hit. In addition to heat above 109F/43C, some chemicals like capsaicin can also stimulate TRPV1.

Though when in labor, your body doesn’t flood your baby maker with ghost peppers, a study found that TRPV1 and associated nerves are what may be responsible for cervical ripening and the feeling of a burning pitchfork being inserted into your abdomen and rotated during every contraction.😂(they did not describe labor pain that way, I took some artistic license based on my experience)😂💪🤱. Though normally TRPV1 is found all over your body, in late pregnancy and labor it essentially disappears from the body and is only found around the cervix. It is fascinating that our bodies transform so much during pregnancy, and it is exciting that one day we may discover why the f$&@ labor decided it needed to hurt so bad.

Sources:
Tingaker, et al. Influence of pregnancy and labor on the occurrence of nerve fibers expressing the capsaicin receptor TRPV1 in human corpus and cervix uteri. Reproductive Bio and Endocrinology 6:(8) 2008

Frias and Merighi. Capsaicin, Nociception and Pain. Molecules. 21(6), 797. 2016

Grapefruit, 5-geranoxypsoralen, and medications

This is 5-geranoxypsoralen. It’s found in many citrus fruits, but at an especially high concentration in grapefruit.
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When you take some medications, or eat food, or drink $12 fresh-pressed juices, or lick hallucinogenic frogs, etc., an enzyme called cytochrome P450 alters some of the foreign molecules you ingested so they are more easily cleared by your body (AKA pee it out).
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This is one of the first steps in your body’s built-in detox system (so yes, your body detoxes the detox juice you just drank 😉). 5-geranoxypsoralen, however, inhbits cytochrome P450 (specifically CYP3A4), which means that if you drink grapefruit juice, the enzyme cannot modify those molecules to clear them. This is usually fine unless you are taking certain medications.
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When you are prescribed a medicine, the dose takes into account the amount that will be lost by cytochrome P450. But, if cytochrome P450 is knocked out by the grapefruit juice, it will increase the effective amount of medicine your body will get, sometimes with toxic side effects.
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So, PSA, always check your medications’ labels for warnings about citrus juice. Common contraindicated drugs are Lipitor (atorvastatin), Buspar (buspirone), and Uceris (budesonide).

xoxo
Cara

Source: Acta Pharmacol Sin. 2004 Feb;25(2):129-36

Plants 101: Propagating Plants through Cuttings (for kids and adults!)

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I have this thing with plants. I dream of having a rainforest in my home one day, but until recently, I’ve had a pretty black thumb. I tried to grow many different house plants when I got my first place, but I killed every single one of them. From fungus gnat larvae bursting through the soil after I tried to set up a DIY home irrigation system from leftover LPLC parts, to hydrogen sulfide-producing bacteria in the soil of a philodendron making my little condo smell like the end-days of the Permian extinction, it was pretty much a comedy of errors.

Fast forward 8 years later, I have a fiddle leaf fig (Ficus lyrata) taller than me, a healthy, full rubber plant (Ficus elastica), and a huge snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata) that are my pride and joy, along with several other newer plants dotting our home. I didn’t raise these plants without problems though. For example, the snake plant and I battled a nasty (I mean NASTY) millipede infestation soon after I first bought it (This is where Anna first learned to use tweezers at 2.5-years-old: picking baby millipedes out of the soil. Talk about honing those fine-motor skills).

Plant motherhood is not all glamorous foliage, but the most important thing I learned is that you can’t just buy any plant at Home Depot, water the crap out of it, and expect it to thrive. You have to learn what each plant needs: soil type (airy, dense, sandy, etc), light (high, low, morning, etc), watering (drainage, frequency, dry depth, etc.), general care (humidity, cleaning, pruning, etc).  In doing so, I’ve really come to appreciate every little thing about my plants, from the different types of variegation on each leaf to the climate where they were originally from.

The amazing teacher and science communicator, Naomi Volain, created a beautiful website called Plants Go Global to educate and raise awareness about plants to help solve our planet’s environmental problems. A part of this movement is appreciating the beauty of plants and fighting “plant blindness”- where the plants we see everyday just fade into the background of our view, not focusing on the importance, diversity, and striking beauty of them. I have combatted my own plant blindness by becoming a plant mom at home, and I hope to pass this on to my kids by educating them on everything from house plants to vegetable gardens to plant anatomy and biodiversity. Visit the site for more information!

PlantsGoGlobal.com

Recently, my snake plant was blown over by the wind from an open window and a long leaf snapped off. I decided to use it to make some new plants. The process is so simple that a three-year-old can do it (and she did). Read on below in the discussion for more about the science behind propagation through cuttings, and some tips to do this project with a child.

Materials

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  • Healthy mother plant
  • Pot or container with drainage
  • Proper rooting medium. This replaces soil for the time being (see below for why). The medium needs to be airy, light (not compact), well draining, non-nutritive, and moist. There are several ways to achieve this:
    • 50/50 mix of vermiculite and peat
  • Sharp, clean scissors, shears, or razor blade (though probably not a razor blade if you’re doing this with a three year old!)
  • Large plastic bag (optional)
  • Rooting Hormone (optional, though highly recommended)
  • A warm place

Method (How to make plant cuttings for propagation)

  1. Put your cutting medium into the container.
  2. Lay the leaf down and mark a dot every 4-6 inches (see the image to the right). cuttings snake plant how to
  3. Cut just below the dot with sharp scissors. If you’re doing this with a child, try to show them the picture or describe the process to them without doing it for them. It is a good exercise in following directions. Needless to say, be careful with scissors and young children.
  4. Prepare holes for the cuttings to go into the potting medium (i.e. wiggle a pencil in there to make a line the shape of the leaf). This is so you don’t rub off the rooting hormone when you stick the cutting in there.
  5. (Optional, though recommended) Dip the dot-side of the leaf into rooting hormone (see discussion section for what this is). I would do this step myself for younger children, but older ones can do it, just make sure they wash their hands afterwards. If you dip the wrong side in, it will not grow.
  6. Put the cuttings into the pot, dot-side down, about 1.5 inches deep or so the leaf won’t tip over. If the wrong side gets put in the dirt, it will not grow (which is why the dots are helpful).Untitled_Artwork 95
  7. Water, then cover with a plastic bag to keep it moist.
  8. Keep the medium moist and warm, and soon (2-10 weeks) you will have roots! To check, very very gently tug on the leaf. If there is resistance, you probably have roots.
  9. Gently dig up the roots and plant in normal potting soil. A new plant will begin to grow from a newly formed rhizome and pop up through the soil. Snake plants are slow growers, so this might take a while.
  10. Don’t worry if your cutting dies instead of takes root. It happens. When we did this, only 2 of our 7 rooted (but we did this without rooting hormone because I couldn’t find it after our move).

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Two of seven rooted. It is pretty obvious which ones have roots!

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The roots grow right out of where you cut the plant! The white thing on the bottom of the pointy leaf is a new rhizome. This will grow under the soil, then produce a new plant.

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This is the little baby plant that is growing from the rhizome above. We are still waiting on the other leaf to sprout a baby, but it’s looking good!

Discussion

There is SO MUCH science going on here, it’s crazy. I’ll go through some highlights.

  • This is an asexual process so your new plant and old plant will have the same DNA. Propagation through cuttings is a form of plant cloning. I think this is what they did with Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy II 😉
  • You want the medium that you put the cuttings into to be non-nutritive to discourage pathogen growth. I’ve also read that you don’t want the plant to take up any nutrients to discourage leaf growth and encourage root growth (so it’ll send roots out searching for more nutritive soil).
  • You want the cutting to be big enough that it can still get some energy from photosynthesis, but small enough that it’s stressed to encourage root growth. Four to six inches seems to be the sweet spot for snake plants.
  • Rooting hormone! Although many plants may still root without it, using rooting hormone will up your chances of success. Most commercial rooting hormones are indole-3-butyric acid.
    • Hormones are molecules that cells and tissues use to communicate. In this case, it signals plants to grow roots.
    • Stem cells (not talking about cells in the stem of plants, confusing, I know) are special cells that can form other types of cells. The process of a stem cell becoming a specific type of cell is called differentiation. Plants, humans, and all animals began from stem cells differentiating. In the stems of plants, there are partially differentiated stem cells (Stem cells in stems! They couldn’t think of a different word here?!) that when stimulated, will start differentiating down the path to create more root cells. The injury from cutting the plant is stimulus enough to start this process, but you can help it along by using rooting hormone.

For Kids

We all know the “seed in a ziplock bag in the window” project to begin to teach kids about plants, but there are so many other educational and fulfilling projects to do with them. Having them join in with typical houseplant or garden chores is a great way to teach them about plants, responsibility, and pride in your work (and also handling frustration when 80% of your cuttings die). It is also a great way to encourage a love and appreciation of plants, and to fight plant blindness! Snake plants are a great place to start because they are easy to propagate and hard to kill.

For this project, you want to make sure your child knows the main parts of a plant (roots, stem, leaves). It can be as simple as:

  • Roots get nutrients from the soil
  • Leaves make energy (carbohydrates) from sunlight through photosynthesis
  • Stems help deliver nutrients and carbohydrates throughout the plant.

The snake plant is a little confusing because the stem isn’t obvious, but it’s good to learn about the vast variation in plant life.

Depending on their age and science background, you can introduce some of the concepts above, like stem cells or how cells use molecules (the rooting hormone) to communicate. This is an easy yet powerful project that highlights some key concepts about plants and life.

Check out PlantsGoGlobal.com for more information and ideas about plants!

Sources:

http://growingthehomegarden.com/2009/05/sand-vs-soil-for-propagation.html

https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/houseplants/snake-plant/snake-plant-propagation.htm

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