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Botanical Miracles: Chemistry of Plants that Changed the World


Botanical Miracles: Chemistry of Plants that Changed the World by Raymond Cooper and Jeffrey John Deakin. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 2016. Hardcover, 252 pages. ISBN: 978-1-4987-0428-1. $119.95.

The authors state that the purpose of this book is to “supplement and extend the teaching curriculum by providing context for learning in organic chemistry ... [and] to inspire, enhance and enrich an inquiring mind through a multidisciplinary approach; embracing science, medicine, the natural environment, geography and history.” The text is presented as a series of case studies of individual natural molecules that are organized by various categories, such as medicines, foods, beverages, euphorics (natural drugs with abuse potential), cosmetics, and colorants.

Within each individual case study is an exploration of the molecule’s main functional group(s) and how the basic chemical structure of the molecule corresponds to various functions or characteristics. Some generalized synthetic organic chemistry schemes are presented with respect to the functional groups found in the highlighted molecule, along with some discussion on the isolation/production of the molecule from natural and/or synthetic sources. The history of use and societal context and impact (e.g., regulation, social aspects, environmental consequences, etc.) are included. Additional discussion may be offered on other molecules of the same structural class or on synthetic substitutes for the highlighted natural molecule(s).

In some cases, there is discussion on various analytical techniques, such as spectroscopy (e.g., nuclear magnetic resonance [NMR]) and chromatography, which can be found readily in any organic chemistry textbook. The authors wanted to be very comprehensive, but the book might have been strengthened by focusing a bit more on the unique perspectives the authors could bring to bear on the selected natural molecules. In some sections, the book is weakened by the inclusion of information that is only peripherally related to the initial molecule of focus. For example, the section on “A Steroid in Your Garden” includes a discussion of vitamin C and other vitamins that are not steroids.

In the section that includes taxol, a chemotherapy drug isolated from the bark of the Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia, Taxaceae), a discussion about stereochemistry (i.e., the study of the spatial arrangement of atoms and molecules) and chirality might have logically wrapped back around to mention the numerous stereocenters of the featured molecule and their implications in regards to the molecule’s synthesis, but this was not done. From this perspective, although the authors appear to have fulfilled the purpose of the book, some streamlining for a future edition could also be envisioned.

There are some minor factual errors that it would be useful to correct if there are plans for a second edition, such as proper credit to Monroe Wall, PhD, and Mansukh Wani, PhD, as the co-discoverers of taxol (not “Monroe and Wall,” as stated), as well as the substitution of a photo of coffee (Coffea arabica, Rubiaceae) beans for what should have been cocoa (Theobroma cacao, Malvaceae) beans in Figure 4.3. In the latter case, even the cited photo source misidentified the beans. Some of the images used as figures do not have a credit or copyright designation.

There are some places where the authors’ definitions deviate from mainstream chemical concepts. An example: “Lipids, also known as fatty acids….” Fatty acids are, rather, one type of lipid, whereas lipids also include molecules such as aliphatics, sterols, triglycerides, waxes, oils, etc. Another example: “An essential oil is an aqueous [emphasis mine] mixture containing the volatile hydrophobic compounds of an individual plant….” Essential oils are mixtures of volatile, hydrophobic compounds, not aqueous compounds. Rather, a hydrosol is the steam distillate of a plant that has mainly aqueous content and some tiny amount of volatile oils (which also may be present in the essential oil fraction), so perhaps the insertion of the word “aqueous” was inadvertent.

The above items notwithstanding, this book is still a unique contribution to the reading list of the undergraduate or graduate organic chemistry educator who wishes to provide his or her students with a stimulating collection of information, both scientific and anecdotal, about some of the most influential natural products worldwide.

The book is not necessarily a reference guide, but rather, a unique textbook that would, in my opinion, be well-intended for use by advanced organic chemistry students. I would not recommend the content to anyone who has not yet taken an organic chemistry class, since I think it would be too advanced. However, it would be appropriately used as part of an advanced organic chemistry or natural products class. The questions at the end of each case study are useful for stimulating additional discussion and could even be used as inspiration for independent projects when appropriate for the curriculum.

A bit eclectic and possibly wandering in some areas (as many good stories are), the fundamental chemistry of natural products that have had a significant social, economic, or medical impact on the world is covered well overall. I especially appreciate the historical anecdotes that provide the “story behind the molecule” in some cases. Botanical Miracles is a good read, and I recommend it for undergraduate and graduate organic and/or natural products chemistry students and educators.

—Nancy L. Booth, PhD
Bethesda, Maryland