This week the ChemSem presentation was given by Dr. Robert E. Minto from Purdue. Recently he has been working on understanding the biological synthesis of polyacetylenes and the enzymes that create them. Much of this material has not been investigated, but the biological effects of polyacetylenes are well known.
There were several interesting facts that were gained in this presentation. To begin with, Dr. Minto talked about the prevalence of Russian Knapweed as an invasive species in California. It has been discovered that the success of this plant is due to the fact that its roots secrete polyacetylenes which cause nearby plants to fail to germinate. At the same time, Poison Dart frogs have been shown to be toxic due to the secretion of other polyacetylenes the precursors of which are found in the ants that make up the frogs' diet.
I did have several questions for Dr. Minto. First of all, it was unclear why polyacetylenes were as toxic as was described. No clear mention or discussion was made about the particular mechanism that causes problems. Secondly, though several possible applications were tangentially referred to, there did not seem to be any immediate uses for an understanding of the enzymatic production of these chemicals in plants. Granted, the results of much scientific study are rarely clear from the beginning, but a general direction of interest would have been helpful in following the lecture. Finally, Dr. Minto only briefly referenced the hope in his branch of science that a better understanding of lipid bilayers in plants would lead to a new form of renewable energy. This seemed to be an interesting concept, but it wasn't elaborated upon. In the end, though I was unable to fully follow all of his lecture and some of the enzyme discussion escaped me, the biological reactions of polyacetylenes were rather fascinating.