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J Nat Prod. 1989 Nov-Dec;52(6):1189-208.

Why are secondary metabolites (natural products) biosynthesized?

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University Chemical Laboratory, Cambridge, UK.


We adopt the definition of a natural product as a substance that has no known role in the internal economy of the producing organism. The literature abounds with conflicting views for the existence of such natural products. We propose that all such structures serve the producing organisms by improving their survival fitness. We argue that this conclusion is necessitated by the fact that natural products are normally complex structures, whose biosynthesis is programmed by many kilobases of DNA. If it were otherwise, the pressures of Darwinian natural selection would have precluded the expenditure of so much metabolic energy in their construction and the development of such complexity. We further conclude that a natural product improves the producer's survival fitness by acting at specific receptors in competing organisms. Current studies of natural products interacting with receptors support this view, in terms of both the sophistication of the molecule/molecule recognition and the mechanistic details of physiological action. By the application of Occam's razor and general weaknesses of other hypotheses, these other hypotheses are rejected. It is a consequence of our proposal that natural product/receptor interactions of sophistication comparable to enzyme/substrate interactions will be commonplace. Additionally, structures that are candidates to interact with known receptors (e.g., double helical DNA) can on occasion be suggested by inspection of the structures. A range of evidence to support the general conclusions is presented.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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