Thyme and oregano possess an anti-cancer compound that suppresses tumour development, but adding more to your tomato sauce isn’t enough to gain significant benefit. The key to unlocking the power of these plants is in amplifying the amount of the compound created or synthesizing the compound for drug development. Researchers at Purdue University achieved the first step toward using the compound in pharmaceuticals by mapping its biosynthetic pathway, a sort of molecular recipe of the ingredients and steps needed. “These plants contain important compounds, but the amount is very low and extraction won’t be enough,” said Natalia Dudareva, a distinguished professor of biochemistry in Purdue’s College of Agriculture, who co-led the project. “By understanding how these compounds are formed, we open a path to engineering plants with higher levels of them or to synthesizing the compounds in microorganisms for medical use. It is an amazing time for plant science right now. We have tools that are faster, cheaper, and provide much more insight. It is like looking inside the cell; it is almost unbelievable.” Thymol, carvacrol, and thymohydroquinone are flavour compounds in thyme, oregano, and other plants in the Lamiaceae family. They also have antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and other properties beneficial to human health. Thymohydroquinone has been shown to have anti-cancer properties and is particularly of interest, said Dudareva. In collaboration with scientists from Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in Germany and Michigan State University, the team uncovered the entire biosynthetic pathway to thymohydroquinone, including the formation of its precursors thymol and carvacrol, and the short-lived intermediate compounds along the way. The findings alter previous views of the formation of this class of compounds, called phenolic or aromatic monoterpenes, for which only a few biosynthetic pathways have been discovered in other plants, she said. The work is detailed in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.