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Alkaloids are a class of basic, naturally occurring organic compounds that contain at least one nitrogen atom. This group also includes some related compounds with neutral[2] and even weakly acidic properties.[3] Some synthetic compounds of similar structure may also be termed alkaloids.[4] In addition to carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen, alkaloids may also contain oxygen, sulfur and, more rarely, other elements such as chlorine, bromine, and phosphorus.[5]


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Alkaloids are produced by a large variety of organisms including bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals.[6] They can be purified from crude extracts of these organisms by acid-base extraction, or solvent extractions followed by silica-gel column chromatography.[7] Alkaloids have a wide range of pharmacological activities including antimalarial (e.g. quinine), antiasthma (e.g. ephedrine), anticancer (e.g. homoharringtonine),[8] cholinomimetic (e.g. galantamine),[9] vasodilatory (e.g. vincamine), antiarrhythmic (e.g. quinidine), analgesic (e.g. morphine),[10] antibacterial (e.g. chelerythrine),[11] and antihyperglycemic activities (e.g. piperine).[12][failed verification] Many have found use in traditional or modern medicine, or as starting points for drug discovery. Other alkaloids possess psychotropic (e.g. psilocin) and stimulant activities (e.g. cocaine, caffeine, nicotine, theobromine),[13] and have been used in entheogenic rituals or as recreational drugs. Alkaloids can be toxic too (e.g. atropine, tubocurarine).[14] Although alkaloids act on a diversity of metabolic systems in humans and other animals, they almost uniformly evoke a bitter taste.[15]

The boundary between alkaloids and other nitrogen-containing natural compounds is not clear-cut.[16] Compounds like amino acid peptides, proteins, nucleotides, nucleic acid, amines, and antibiotics are usually not called alkaloids.[2] Natural compounds containing nitrogen in the exocyclic position (mescaline, serotonin, dopamine, etc.) are usually classified as amines rather than as alkaloids.[17] Some authors, however, consider alkaloids a special case of amines.[18][19][20]

The name "alkaloids" (German: Alkaloide) was introduced in 1819 by the German chemist Carl Friedrich Wilhelm Meißner, and is derived from late Latin root alkali and the Greek-language suffix -οειδής -('like').[nb 1] However, the term came into wide use only after the publication of a review article, by Oscar Jacobsen in the chemical dictionary of Albert Ladenburg in the 1880s.[21][22]

There is no unique method for naming alkaloids.[23] Many individual names are formed by adding the suffix "ine" to the species or genus name.[24] For example, atropine is isolated from the plant Atropa belladonna; strychnine is obtained from the seed of the Strychnine tree (Strychnos nux-vomica L.).[5] Where several alkaloids are extracted from one plant their names are often distinguished by variations in the suffix: "idine", "anine", "aline", "inine" etc. There are also at least 86 alkaloids whose names contain the root "vin" because they are extracted from vinca plants such as Vinca rosea (Catharanthus roseus);[25] these are called vinca alkaloids.[26][27][28]

Studies of alkaloids began in the 19th century. In 1804, the German chemist Friedrich Sertürner isolated from opium a "soporific principle" (Latin: principium somniferum), which he called "morphium", referring to Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams; in German and some other Central-European languages, this is still the name of the drug. The term "morphine", used in English and French, was given by the French physicist Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac.

A significant contribution to the chemistry of alkaloids in the early years of its development was made by the French researchers Pierre Joseph Pelletier and Joseph Bienaimé Caventou, who discovered quinine (1820) and strychnine (1818). Several other alkaloids were discovered around that time, including xanthine (1817), atropine (1819), caffeine (1820), coniine (1827), nicotine (1828), colchicine (1833), sparteine (1851), and cocaine (1860).[33] The development of the chemistry of alkaloids was accelerated by the emergence of spectroscopic and chromatographic methods in the 20th century, so that by 2008 more than 12,000 alkaloids had been identified.[34]

The first complete synthesis of an alkaloid was achieved in 1886 by the German chemist Albert Ladenburg. He produced coniine by reacting 2-methylpyridine with acetaldehyde and reducing the resulting 2-propenyl pyridine with sodium.[35][36]

Compared with most other classes of natural compounds, alkaloids are characterized by a great structural diversity. There is no uniform classification.[37] Initially, when knowledge of chemical structures was lacking, botanical classification of the source plants was relied on. This classification is now considered obsolete.[5][38]

Some alkaloids do not have the carbon skeleton characteristic of their group. So, galanthamine and homoaporphines do not contain isoquinoline fragment, but are, in general, attributed to isoquinoline alkaloids.[52]

Most alkaloids contain oxygen in their molecular structure; those compounds are usually colorless crystals at ambient conditions. Oxygen-free alkaloids, such as nicotine[159] or coniine,[35] are typically volatile, colorless, oily liquids.[160] Some alkaloids are colored, like berberine (yellow) and sanguinarine (orange).[160]

Most alkaloids have a bitter taste or are poisonous when ingested. Alkaloid production in plants appeared to have evolved in response to feeding by herbivorous animals; however, some animals have evolved the ability to detoxify alkaloids.[168] Some alkaloids can produce developmental defects in the offspring of animals that consume but cannot detoxify the alkaloids. One example is the alkaloid cyclopamine, produced in the leaves of corn lily. During the 1950s, up to 25% of lambs born by sheep that had grazed on corn lily had serious facial deformations. These ranged from deformed jaws to cyclopia (see picture). After decades of research, in the 1980s, the compound responsible for these deformities was identified as the alkaloid 11-deoxyjervine, later renamed to cyclopamine.[169]

The alkaloids content in plants is usually within a few percent and is inhomogeneous over the plant tissues. Depending on the type of plants, the maximum concentration is observed in the leaves (for example, black henbane), fruits or seeds (Strychnine tree), root (Rauvolfia serpentina) or bark (cinchona).[173] Furthermore, different tissues of the same plants may contain different alkaloids.[174]

Beside plants, alkaloids are found in certain types of fungus, such as psilocybin in the fruiting bodies of the genus Psilocybe, and in animals, such as bufotenin in the skin of some toads [23] and a number of insects, markedly ants.[175] Many marine organisms also contain alkaloids.[176] Some amines, such as adrenaline and serotonin, which play an important role in higher animals, are similar to alkaloids in their structure and biosynthesis and are sometimes called alkaloids.[177]

Because of the structural diversity of alkaloids, there is no single method of their extraction from natural raw materials.[178] Most methods exploit the property of most alkaloids to be soluble in organic solvents [7] but not in water, and the opposite tendency of their salts.

Most plants contain several alkaloids. Their mixture is extracted first and then individual alkaloids are separated.[179] Plants are thoroughly ground before extraction.[178][180] Most alkaloids are present in the raw plants in the form of salts of organic acids.[178] The extracted alkaloids may remain salts or change into bases.[179] Base extraction is achieved by processing the raw material with alkaline solutions and extracting the alkaloid bases with organic solvents, such as 1,2-dichloroethane, chloroform, diethyl ether or benzene. Then, the impurities are dissolved by weak acids; this converts alkaloid bases into salts that are washed away with water. If necessary, an aqueous solution of alkaloid salts is again made alkaline and treated with an organic solvent. The process is repeated until the desired purity is achieved.

In the acidic extraction, the raw plant material is processed by a weak acidic solution (e.g., acetic acid in water, ethanol, or methanol). A base is then added to convert alkaloids to basic forms that are extracted with organic solvent (if the extraction was performed with alcohol, it is removed first, and the remainder is dissolved in water). The solution is purified as described above.[178][181]

A number of alkaloids are identified from insects, among which the fire ant venom alkaloids known as solenopsins have received greater attention from researchers.[183] These insect alkaloids can be efficiently extracted by solvent immersion of live fire ants [7] or by centrifugation of live ants [184] followed by silica-gel chromatography purification.[185] Tracking and dosing the extracted solenopsin ant alkaloids has been described as possible based on their absorbance peak around 232 nanometers.[186]

Biological precursors of most alkaloids are amino acids, such as ornithine, lysine, phenylalanine, tyrosine, tryptophan, histidine, aspartic acid, and anthranilic acid.[187] Nicotinic acid can be synthesized from tryptophan or aspartic acid. Ways of alkaloid biosynthesis are too numerous and cannot be easily classified.[84] However, there are a few typical reactions involved in the biosynthesis of various classes of alkaloids, including synthesis of Schiff bases and Mannich reaction.[187]

In addition to the described above monomeric alkaloids, there are also dimeric, and even trimeric and tetrameric alkaloids formed upon condensation of two, three, and four monomeric alkaloids. Dimeric alkaloids are usually formed from monomers of the same type through the following mechanisms:[192]

There are also dimeric alkaloids formed from two distinct monomers, such as the vinca alkaloids vinblastine and vincristine,[26][134] which are formed from the coupling of catharanthine and vindoline.[193][194] The newer semi-synthetic chemotherapeutic agent vinorelbine is used in the treatment of non-small-cell lung cancer.[134][195] It is another derivative dimer of vindoline and catharanthine and is synthesised from anhydrovinblastine,[196] starting either from leurosine[197][198] or the monomers themselves.[134][194] 041b061a72


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