Our primary goal is the development of new bioactive compounds and biocatalysts, inspired by the research of natural substances and processes.
Thematic Areas of the Department
Bioactive compounds - a definition
Bioactive compounds are molecules that cause specific changes in a target organism. As active components of medicines, they help to cure diseases, in food they enhance taste and promote health, e.g. as flavors, antioxidants or vitamins, and as active ingredients in cosmetics, they care for our skin. In agriculture, they protect our food sources in the form of crop protection agents and veterinary medicines. In their many forms, biologically active substances − whether natural or synthetic in origin − play an essential role in our everyday life. However, many problems are still to be solved, such as incurable diseases, resistant germs, reduced yields caused by climate change, environmentally harmful production processes, and dwindling natural resources. Our research at IPB-NWC attempts to make positive contributions in these challenging fields.
Why do we investigate plants and higher fungi?
Humans depend on plants for their respiration (oxygen), nutrition and to a considerable extent for medical care with approx. 2/3 of the world population relying on plant based medicines. Particularly the chemical compounds of a plant, i.e. its chemical phenotype, its metabolome, make up their value for humans. Essentials are e.g., oxygen to breathe; starch, proteins and flavours for food; biopolymers such as wood, cotton or linoleum for materials; specialized (also called secondary) plant substances for medicinal effects, for flavor or fragrance, and even for the colors of flowers as ornamentals. Plants communicate and defend themselves mainly by chemical means. Furthermore, they possess excellent biochemical machinery that uses carbon dioxide (!), water and light to produce numerous chemical compounds. Fungi, in turn, are crucial in closing the cycles of matter. Only fungi can effectively break down plant polymers such as lignin. In addition, their unique chemistry often supports plant defence processes.
Our major goals are to investigate, use and influence this diverse chemistry of plants, higher fungi and associated microorganisms and to study and learn from their interactions with the environment.
How to use this knowledge learned from plants and fungi?
First of all, we aim to analyze and characterize natural products from our source organisms and their environment. We want to understand their chemical properties in a biological context in order to eventually identify a potential use. The knowledge gained contributes to the fundamental understanding of the chemistry of nature and allows functional studies of bioactive compounds. Eventually this will aid the development of new products or processes as part of a knowledge based bioeconomy.
Selected findings deliver potentially economically useful results, e.g. lead compounds for the development of new pharmaceuticals, pesticides, cosmetics, flavors, nutraceuticals, or synthetic compounds that can be used as biochemical probes in research or diagnostics. Enzymes and cell factories designed by synthetic biology approaches serve as biocatalysts for environmentally friendly chemical reactions and production processes. Enzymes and other proteins can also be target structures for bioactive compounds.
In addition, extensive synthetic studies are carried out to improve the accessibility and structural variation of bioactive compounds. Such synthetic products also provide fundamental knowledge about structures (configurations), conformations, chemical and biological interactions, which in turn help to improve active substances. Computational chemistry accompanies almost all laboratory and field work: it contributes to a better data and process evaluation, helps with a better design of experiments, and enables the visualization and a better understanding of structural and dynamic molecular processes.
Our focus areas
Higher plants and fungi often contain several hundred different substances. There are almost no „one plant - one natural product - one effect - relationships” in phytochemistry and phytopharmacology: the processes and ways of action are usually complex and interdependent. We aim to not only capture this complexity by chemical analytics (see also the Metabolomics project group), but we also want to learn from it and bring this knowledge into practice, e.g. through a faster identification of the bioactive principles including additive and synergistic systems.
Our main focus areas for human applications are anticancer agents and neurological effects (including non-medicinal applications, e.g., taste or learning & memory enhancement). Plant bioactive compounds have a very successful history for these applications.
Our research also deals with crop protection and productivity. We primarily aim for novel fungicides and herbicides; and on improving plant productivity under climate-change caused stress conditions such as drought or other abiotic stress.
Access and property improvement of active compounds remain long-term goals in the field of synthesis ("medicinal chemistry"). We primarily use highly effective multi-component reactions (MCRs). In particular, the Ugi reaction and its variations allow a fast access to peptide structures, conjugates, and chemical probes for the investigation of biological processes. Biotechnology offers alternative ways of syntheses. Our team have developed multi-stage enzymatic biotechnological processes especially for phenylpropanoids, terpenoids and meroterpenoids.
Are plant bioactives better than synthetic ones?
The simple answer is: no, they are not.
Many people have a wrong „flatrate-opinion” about natural products and believe that herbal or natural bioactives are better or milder than synthetic chemicals. But no plant produces active compounds to heal people. It produces active ingredients (= chemicals) for its own purposes, e.g. for defense against pathogens. All we do is taking advantage of such natural processes, misusing them for our human needs. But these often not optimally fit OUR needs, they are originally designed for the plants needs. Therefore, a chemical adjustment is required to, e.g., eliminate frequently accompanying side effects or counter missing bioavailabilty.
Others again believe that natural or herbal medicines are less effective or even without any positive effect because they mix up phytopharmaceuticals with homeopathic and esoteric materials (such as "Bach flower remedies"). Also this is not true: some of our strongest medicines are of plant origin. Nobody would consider morphine or taxotere (Taxol®, an anti-cancer drug from the yew tree) as ineffective – or mild.