HomeChemistryPhilipp Zerbe: Plant Terpenes and The Strawberry Mission

Philipp Zerbe: Plant Terpenes and The Strawberry Mission

Metabolites – Main and Secondary

A metabolite is any substance that’s produced throughout metabolism* or that takes half in metabolism within the plant [1]. Metabolites are small molecules and are usually categorized into two broad courses – main or secondary. Whereas there exists appreciable overlap within the two by way of chemical construction, one can draw on variations primarily based on a few of the capabilities they carry out, as Dr. Philipp Zerbe, affiliate professor on the College of California, Davis, highlights.

Main/ basic metabolites are important for the survival, growth, and replica; they’re completely crucial for the survival of the plant. Examples of main metabolites embody alcohols comparable to ethanol, lactic acid, and sure amino acids and sugars. Whereas sure secondary metabolites additionally carry out comparable capabilities, they’re primarily chemical substances that vegetation utilise to carry out particular capabilities [4]. Secondary metabolites will not be important as main metabolites as these will not be immediately concerned in progress, growth and replica of organisms. They haven’t any obvious perform in a plant’s main metabolism, however usually have an ecological function – as pollinator attractants, to signify chemical diversifications to environmental stresses, or function chemical defences towards microorganisms, bugs and better predators. They’re additionally ceaselessly amassed by vegetation in smaller portions than main metabolites [2]. 

* Metabolism is the whole quantity of biochemical reactions concerned in sustaining the residing situation of the cells of an organism. In different phrases, it refers back to the chemical processes that happen inside a residing organism with the intention to keep life. 


Amongst secondary metabolites, the most important and most various group is that of the terpenes, typically also called terpenoids. Whereas the 2 phrases are sometimes used interchangeably, terpenoids are a modified class of terpenes, with totally different useful teams comparable to oxygen [4]. Terpenes accumulate largely in vegetation and fungi; widespread plant sources of terpenes are tea, thyme, hashish, Spanish sage, and citrus fruits [3].

What makes the incidence of terpenes fascinating is that each one of them (over 100,000 chemical constructions) sometimes originate from solely two five-carbon hydrocarbon precursors – vegetation then take these hydrocarbons, act on them utilizing enzymes, and modify their properties and bioactivities. This leads to a captivating world of plant variety and evolution. The enzyme modification course of is preceded by the creation of cyclic and acyclic constructions of the five-carbon precursors. These constructions are then modified by numerous enzymes that connect useful teams to them – hydroxyl (OH-), acetyl, methyl (CH3-), and so forth. The addition of those useful teams is, primarily, what results in variety in perform of the terpenes [4]. 

Dr. Philipp Zerbe encourages college students to view the method utilizing the “lego block analogy” – one begins out with the identical block, however can add totally different blocks additional to alter the construction fully. This potential chemical variety presents profitable alternatives for crop modification and crop yield optimization, in addition to for the formulation of medicines.

Dr. Philipp Zerbe & The Strawberry Mission

One of many many initiatives that Dr. Zerbe and his crew undertake is The Strawberry Mission. The widespread number of strawberries present in markets, whereas bigger in measurement and tastier, lacks the candy, pungent aroma that’s attribute of untamed strawberries. This aroma, which comes largely from terpenes, is misplaced within the domestication course of. In a collaboration with the strawberry farmers of California, Dr. Zerbe and his crew work in the direction of restoring this attribute scent whereas additionally retaining the advantages of domestication (comparable to bigger measurement and higher style). The crew appears to be like at figuring out the particular terpenes that contribute to this aroma, and likewise research the genes that drive their manufacturing. Utilizing this info, it might probably recommend particular focal genes to farmers for “selective breeding” – selecting dad or mum vegetation with these specific genes to provide a genetically modified offspring. 

Be taught Extra

If you happen to’d like to listen to extra concerning the great world of terpenes and one in all its researchers, go to us on Spotify to take heed to our ChemTalk podcast with Dr. Philipp Zerbe, affiliate professor and chemist on the College of California, Davis, to be taught extra concerning the Strawberry Mission, what his recommendation is for faculty college students, and the way he promotes inclusivity and variety via scholar alternate packages. 

Discover the ChemTalk podcast right here: https://open.spotify.com/episode/4tEBTXjOCnXImQvy8jLIIT

Works Cited 

[1] “What are Metabolites? – Main and Secondary”. Geeks for Geeks. 5 July 2022. https://www.geeksforgeeks.org/what-are-metabolites-primary-and-secondary/

[2] Main and Secondary Metabolites. (2021, January 4). https://bio.libretexts.org/@go/web page/12413

[3] Seigler, D.S. (1998). Introduction to Terpenes. In: Plant Secondary Metabolism. Springer, Boston, MA. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4615-4913-0_18

[4] Zerbe, Philipp. Private Interview. Performed by Roxanne Salkeld. 23 September 2022. 



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