Catnip’s Chemical Attractant Is New Twist on Old Family Tradition (Florida Museum of Natural History)

Catnip’s Chemical Attractant Is New Twist on Old Family Tradition

Catnip is most famous for its ability to launch felines into a euphoric frenzy, but the origin of its cat-attracting chemical is a remarkable example of evolutionary innovation. While the compound nepetalactone drives two-thirds of cats batty, likely by mimicking sex pheromones, its real purpose is protecting catnip from pests. Nepetalactone belongs to a class of chemicals called iridoids, which can repel insects as effectively as DEET.

Many of catnip’s relatives in the mint family use iridoids as chemical armor. But an international team of researchers found the ancient ancestor of catnip lost a key iridoid-making gene. Descendants in this lineage – herbs such as basil, oregano, rosemary, lemon balm and mint – had to lean on other defenses, with one notable exception: catnip, which revived the family tradition by evolving a new iridoid production line from scratch.

The findings, including the first detailed look at catnip’s nepetalactone recipe, were published in Science Advances. They provide crucial insights into how plants lose and regain defensive compounds, said study co-author Pamela Soltis, Florida Museum of Natural History curator and University of Florida distinguished professor.

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