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Scientist's Discoveries Upgrade Weed To 'Desired' List


SYRACUSE, N.Y. - A chemist at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) and a DeWitt teen-ager, examining a weed they found in the chemist's backyard, have discovered a new chemical compound that could be used in the battle against cholesterol.

The discovery by Dr. José Giner and Jason Berkowitz, now a freshman at Tufts University, will be reported in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Natural Products.

Giner was helping Berkowitz, then a Jamesville-DeWitt High School junior with an interest in chemistry, with a research project when they made the discovery during the summer of 1998. They were analyzing the latex present in a small weed that grew in the yard of Giner's university-area home.

Their discovery was two-pronged. In addition to finding the new compound, they also found a hydrocarbon fraction in the latex that is chemically identical to the pheromone that houseflies use as a sexual attractant. The substance has been found before, but only in the flies themselves. This marks the first time it has been seen in a plant.

"It was actually very exciting when I learned it was publication material. That was always my objective," Berkowitz said.

Giner called the discovery a thrill.

"Sometimes you find new things and interesting things in your backyard. My backyard, in this case," he said. "This summer, the plant was elevated from a weed to a desired plant in my backyard. I wanted to be sure I had enough of it."

The new compound is the more startling discovery. They found it in a small weed commonly known as petty spurge. The plant's scientific name is Euphorbia peplus, so Giner and Berkowitz named the discovery peplusol.

Its structure indicates it could be used to develop a medication that could inhibit the formation of cholesterol. Giner said peplusol belongs to a class of chemicals that helps researchers understand the synthesis of cholesterol in the human body.

The chemical identical to the housefly pheromone could be used as an environmentally safe insecticide that works by luring male houseflies into a trap, where they die.

Giner said the reason for the pheromone's presence in the plant's latex is unclear. "We're wondering what the function of this is," he said. "It could be used as a tool for pollination."

Latex is a defense mechanism. It contains a natural rubber that protects the plant against predators, mostly microorganisms. The latex

contains a number of toxic chemicals, some of which are being investigated as anti-cancer and pain relief medications.

"It has a lot of medicinal interest," Giner said. "Every toxin is a medicine waiting to be discovered."

The pending publication was a nice detail to add to college applications, Berkowitz said.

"It was an incredible opportunity for me, living near a university," he said. "It's one of those things I can feel proud about. I was doing college-level research as a high school junior."

He estimated he spent three to six hours a week working with Giner during the course of a year. The toughest part, he said, was learning the procedures and lab techniques.

"Dr. Giner had to teach me everything. In the beginning, it was kind of a rough ride," Berkowitz said. "It was a challenge. But that's what drives me most of the time."

Giner is a bioorganic chemist whose work focuses on studying nature's methods of generating structural diversity in natural products.

Some of Giner's work is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In that project, he is investigating a natural insecticide found in petunias. It is a complicated molecule that can be constructed in a laboratory through a process Giner invented. With the assistance of graduate student Juan Faraldos, Giner is trying to determine how much the molecule can be simplified without losing its effectiveness.