Terpenoids are derived from acetyl coenzyme A or from intermediates in glycolysis. They are classified by the number of five-carbon isoprenoid units they contain. Monoterpenes (containing two C5-units) are exemplified by the aromatic oils (such as menthol) contained in the leaves of members of the mint family. In addition to giving these plants their characteristic taste and fragrance, these aromatic oils have insect-repellent qualities. The pyreth-roids, which are monoterpene esters from the flowers of chrysanthemum and related species, are used commercially as insecticides. They fatally affect the nervous systems of insects while being biodegradable and nontoxic to mammals, including humans.
Diterpenes are formed from four C5-units. Paclitaxel (commonly known by the brand name Taxol), a diterpene found in bark of the Pacific yew tree, is a potent inhibitor of cell division in animals. At the end of the twentieth century, paclitaxel was developed as a powerful new chemotherapeutic treatment for people with solid tumors, such as ovarian cancer patients.
Triterpenoids (formed from six C5-units) comprise the plant steroids, some of which act as plant hormones. These also can protect plants from insect attack, though their mode of action is quite different from that of the pyrethroids. For example, the phytoecdysones are a group of plant sterols that resemble insect molting hormones. When ingested in excess, phytoecdysones can disrupt the normal molting cycle with often lethal consequences to the insect.
Tetraterpenoids (eight C5-units) include important pigments such as beta-carotene, which is a precursor of vitamin A, and lycopene, which gives tomatoes their red color. Rather than functioning in plant defense, the colored pigments that accumulate in ripening fruits can serve as attractants to animals, which actually aid the plant in seed dispersal.
The polyterpenes are polymers that may contain several thousand isoprenoid units. Rubber, a poly-terpene in the latex of rubber trees that probably aids in wound healing in the plant, is also very important for the manufacture of tires and other products.
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