Over the Christmas holiday, quite a few of us will consume ethanol-containing products. This simple, two-carbon molecule is a potent (and legal) mood-altering drug that is woven into the fabric of European and many other cultures since time immemorial. Ethanol has been part of the furniture of human civilization since enterprising farmers discovered it in rotten fruit. It is only fitting that it features prominently at Christmas, a winter feast of excess.
Charles Darwin performed experiments on plant movements with his seventh child, Francis Darwin, which they wrote up as joint authors in 1880 (Francis was a young man at the time). Every year, thousands of children and budding scientists repeat these experiments:
- Shine a light on a plant from just one source, and observe as plants orientate their growth to ‘face’ the light.
- Adorn growing shoots with a ‘cap’ that is impermeable to light and observe as they grow straight, even as light hits the open stem.
The tip of the plant senses the direction of the light, and this information is transmitted to the growing stem to direct growth behaviour. That transmission is performed by auxins, the first of which was isolated in the 1930s.
By the early part of the 20th Century, as the chemistry of life was becoming clearer, people began to see that the way animals and plants transmitted information through their bodies must itself be chemical. In animals, the information-transfer network can make use of nerve structures. But in plants, the only sensible option is to use diffusible chemicals.
The first auxin to be identified was indole-3-acetic acid, isolated and characterised by Kenneth Thimann, a transplanted Brit at Harvard University. He literally wrote the book on plant hormones, together with a Dutch transplant to California, Frits Warmolt Went.
Plants are very amenable to physical manipulation. For example, one can cut shoots from the plant and re-grow them on porous substrates, such as agar jelly. Well before he joined forces with Thimann, Went knew that there were diffusible, growth-promoting substances he could ‘capture’ in that agar jelly and move around to promote growth in other parts of the plant. He coined the phrase “auxin” (from the Greek meaning ‘to increase’) to describe this property.
Auxins aren’t just used in light sensing– they are reused throughout plant development. They do not rely on ‘normal’ molecular diffusion through the plant material; rather, every plant cell helps set up particular auxin transport gradients.
By tightly organising sensing cells –light sensing at the tips of shoots and gravity sensing at the tips of roots – and connecting their auxin-producing components to the correct counterparts, the beautiful growth of plants can be controlled precisely. That allows plants to adapt to whatever environment it finds itself in.
It takes a village
Unsurprisingly, this chemical gradient can be subverted for other uses – both good and bad.
Plants do not live in isolation. Their roots generally co-exist with a complex web of microbes and fungi, which extend the root’s nutritional reach – so much so that in sterile soil, most plants will not flourish. This community of bacteria and fungi will often make auxins themselves to help stimulate the root growth, encasing themselves in a protective, sheltered environment.
An extreme example of this is legume plants, which develop ‘bacteria hotels’ to supply them with plentiful sugar and water. In exchange, the bacteria expend huge amounts of energy in capturing nitrogen from the atmosphere – the plant’s own, captured fertilizer factory.
Auxins are just one variety of chemical that can be swapped between bacteria guest and plant host, like tickets to a VIP lounge, ensuring the right bacteria are coming in. Other, not-so-friendly organisms have caught onto the power of auxins. For example, many nematodes produce auxin to trigger root growth around them, forming ‘giant cells’ and other super-structures for their own, exclusive benefit – and certainly no benefit to the plant
The constant need to innovate to secure the communication network, keeping the signals away from opportunistic parasites, is why there is such a diversity of auxins. Plants are constantly shifting their internal messaging system, keeping one step ahead of the game as parasites start to exploit them
No one could mistake the pungent, spicy smell of caraway on rye bread, or perhaps in a yoghurt pudding, for the sharp, fresh smell of spearmint pinched from the garden or flavouring your tea. The two are entirely distinct. And yet the chemicals that make these two smells are identical in every possible way, except that they are mirror images of each other (‘enantiomers’).
Chinese culture has long treated ailments using herbal extracts in intricate combinations. This oeuvre of herbal experimentation gave rise to purified forms more recognisable as medicines, of which Artemisinin is one success story.
One of the first fluorescent molecules to be synthesised by humans was Fluorescein. The imposing German chemist Adolf von Baeyer created it in 1871, and was awarded the 1905 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on dyes and aromatic compounds.
My seventh chemical of Christmas is not routinely made in biology, and is actually lethal to most large animals. Crafted by extremely inventive chemists in the 19th Century, benzene is a beautifully symmetric molecule with 6 carbons and 6 hydrogens.
Ah, the smell of coffee brewing, of tea steaming, hot chocolate beckoning on a cold winter’s day… the fizzy kick of Coca-Cola on a long journey. It’s wonderful, really. The taste, feel and cultural significance of each of these drinks may differ, but they all share one key ingredient: caffeine. Caffeine is the most commonly used mood-altering drug for humans: it wakes us up, prepares our minds for work, keeps us alert (we think) and provides a shared experience during informal interactions.
One of the most important discoveries of the 20th Century was antibiotics: chemicals that kill bacteria but not their human hosts. It changed the shape of human society as people began to survive septic cuts, everyday horrific infectious diseases, syphilis and tuberculosis.
Preparations derived from willow have been a regular feature of the human medicine cabinet for centuries: Ancient Egyptians drank willow ‘tea’ to relieve pain, and the Classic Greek physician Hippocrates wrote about the remedy in 400 BC. But it took a team of German chemists in 1897, working for Bayer, to synthesise a pure compound related to the active substances in willow, acetylsalicylic acid. They packaged it up neatly in pill form, and sold it under its trademarked name, Aspirin, which quickly became a household word.
Small molecules can be great for sending biochemical signals between cells, or between different parts of a cell, because they can diffuse rapidly in water – notably, the water in your body. Big, multicellular organisms rely on hundreds of such molecules to get on with the business of living.