Friday, 5 December 2014

Christmas molecules: What parasite makes you want to kiss?

Most cultures have some form of celebration around this time of the year and in Britain you'll find the market stalls selling holly and mistletoe. If you stay still, it wont be long before you can hear the sound of Christmas carols as you go shopping, where you might hear tales of frankincense and myrrh. You may also wonder why! Holly is a plant that can be found in various forms all over the world and its bright red berries and dark green leaves make it very popular for decoration in all cultures. But what about frankincense and myrrh? These are resins that have been extracted from trees and have been used by many cultures to provide a rich atmosphere during worship and celebration. They contain terpenoid molecules and, in the case of frankincense, the compound beta boswellic acid (shown RHS) is also thought to
have therapeutic value. However, the chemistry of these aromatic compounds and the essential oils found in the resin preparations is in my view outshone by the parasite that we have decided should give the signal for strangers to give each other a kiss! I am of course talking about viscum (amongst many varieties), better known as mistletoe! It is a plant but also a parasite (technically a hemiparasite: hemi, like semi means half). This plant that grows all over the world has, in contrast to holly, white berries, and again it has been claimed to have medicinal value. However, it 
became traditional to kiss under the mistletoe in England first, and then America. So we, as well as many other cultures have adopted medicinal plants as good luck symbols and during the holidays, I am sure you will all be celebrating in your own way with your own traditions. If you know of any other traditional plants that your family like to have at home let me and John know in the innovation labs. Why? Well in the New Year, Y10s and 11s will be trying to isolate therapeutic molecules from plants: trying to see which are the the most effective. Can anyone tell me which plant extract is used to treat malaria? 

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