Nutty and fungi-ble taxol sources

From San Francisco, at the spring national meeting of the American Chemical Society

Scouting for chemical clues to the puzzle of why eastern filbert blight hits some hazelnut cultivars harder than others, Angela M. Hoffman and her colleagues at the University of Portland in Oregon made a startling discovery. The most resistant trees are making paclitaxel, the active ingredient in the anticancer drug taxol. The trees also produce a host of related taxanes that chemists can convert into the pharmaceutical.

Pacific yew had been the only source of paclitaxel, a costly drug ingredient that’s in high demand. Hoffman’s team has found taxanes in all parts of the blight-resistant hazelnut trees, but concentrations are only one-tenth as high as in the yew trees. However, the hazelnut taxanes represent a double whammy. Inside tissues of the apparently healthy trees, Hoffman discovered independent producers of paclitaxel—various unidentified fungi. Her group is now investigating what role, if any, the taxanes play in protecting hazelnuts from disease.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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