Plant voodoo: A brief intro to the secondary metabolites

Today, in honor of George Romero’s death this week I wanted to tie in zombies and herbalism some way. So in this video we’ll be talking about plant voodoo. Yes, you heard that right, plant voodoo. It may sound kind of crazy to put it that way but once I get done explaining how the purpose of the secondary metabolites and how and why most of the nutritional medicinal and other beneficial constituents are found here in herbs, the secondary metabolites, evolved in botanical life forms in order to maintain their life and propagation.

secondary metabolites

So first off, what are plant secondary metabolites? Well, we need to know what the primary metabolites are before though, right? So I want to start by saying how cool it is (not just cool, but extraordinarily vital to the perpetuation of the life cycle of all organisms) that plant life forms are able to manufacture carbohydrates LITERALLY out of thin air. It’s the stuff of alchemy legend, transmutation of this to that, but it’s true, plants are the ONLY living things that can independently manufacture carbohydrates. They do that by this, pardon the metaphor, internal alchemy where they basically transubstantiate photons, beams of light from the sun within themselves (all life forms on earth are of course already carbon based, humans are nchops, nitrogen carbon hydrogen oxygen phosphorus, sulfur) to create the basic sun based energy that we all need. Don’t even get me started on how trees especially scrub the air of pollutants and toxins and convert carbon dioxide into oxygen… and so that’s

ok, but before I get off track here let’s get back to the topic at hand. Plant mind control… so animals have defense mechanisms of all sorts. Viceroy’s look like a poisonous Monarch, chameleons can shift colors, bears are friggin bears, etc. etc. as for plants everything they need to defend themselves, stay alive, propagate and all that is bound up in their form. scent, color, taste and other qualities, all of these play an important part in how the plant ensures it and its species continued existence.

An Oxford study, from 2009 entitled  Exploitation of secondary metabolites by animals: A response to homeostatic challenges theorizes that many herbivores have long “treated” themselves for parasites, infections and illness through certain plants. There’s the case of velvet bean (mucuna pruriens) which is called cowage (or cow-itch) because it’s chock full of l-dopa (dopamine precursor) but coated in 5-ht (serotonin) spines that are highly irritating to the cows who will continue to chew on them.

secondary metabolites

So the primary metabolites will all be very similar in function and form. Like how, despite tons of differences in animal phylogeny (I think I’m using that word right) for the most part you’ll have the same or similar sorts of organ systems, despite species to species variation.

These secondary metabolites, however are responsible for the real diversity in the plant kingdom and are based on the individual plant species requirements to survive and thrive in nature without having the sort of mobility and sentience that you see in animal life forms.

As far as these plant metabolites go they range from the most simple of phenolic compounds (guess, give up? Alright, I’ll tell you… it’s phenol, oh and spoiler alert, get a few of those phenols attached in a chain and you’ve got a polyphenol going, phenolic components are generally antiseptic antibacterial, and antihelmintic or anti-parasitic). Phenolic compounds are one of the most basic of the plant constituents, stilbenes, quinones, anthraquinones, coumarins, tannins, flavonoids, terpenes, saponins, volatile oils, FIXED oils, polysaccharides, mucilage, gums, fructans and finally (and perhaps most importantly if we’re looking for things that will have a tangible effect on the body and brain) the alkaloids.     Animal Feed Science and Technology

Volume 176, Issues 1–4, 21 September 2012, Pages 5-16 Exogenous influences on plant secondary metabolite levels

Considering all the evidence raised by the joint efforts of phytochemistry and plant biology it can be assumed that secondary metabolites are a way which plants communicate or respond to external stimuli (Bouwmeester et al., 2007; Maffei, 2010; Rasmann and Turlings, 2008; Frost et al., 2008).

Plant Signal Behav. 2006 Jul-Aug; 1(4): 169–178.
PMCID: PMC2634023
Plant Communication from Biosemiotic Perspective
Differences in Abiotic and Biotic Signal Perception Determine Content Arrangement of Response Behavior. Context Determines Meaning of Meta-, Inter- and Intra-organismic Plant Signaling

Almost without exception, plant communication are parallel processes on multiple levels, (A) between plants and microorganisms, fungi, insects and other animals, (B) between different plant species as well as between members of the same plant species; (C), between cells and in cells of the plant organism. In all cases, chemical messengers housed in the secondary metabolites are the key to communication: “To understand these highly diverse competencies we will notice, that this is possible due to parallel communication processes in the plant body (intra-organismic), between the same and different species (inter-organismic), and between plants and non-plant organisms (meta-organismic)”

I guess in a way you could say plants are the ultimate in passive-aggressive behavior trading in old standbys like the guilt trip in for “evolutionarily engineered necessity.” And come on, who wants to argue with that?

Ok, I guess that’s about all for now, tune in next time and we’ll break down a bit more about how these different secondary metabolites affect animals and humans, specifically how they have (and continue to be) used for their medicinal and nutritional benefits.