Alkaloids are a group of naturally occurring chemical compounds that mostly contain basic nitrogen atoms. This group also includes some related compounds with neutral and even weakly acidic properties. Some synthetic compounds of similar structure are also termed alkaloids.

In addition to carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen, alkaloids may also contain oxygen, sulfur and, more rarely, other elements such as chlorine, bromine, and phosphorus. Alkaloids are produced by a large variety of organisms including bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals. They can be purified from crude extracts of these organisms by acid-base extraction. Alkaloids have a wide range of pharmacological activities including antimalarial (e.g. quinine), antiasthma (e.g. ephedrine), anticancer (e.g. homoharringtonine), cholinomimetic (e.g. galantamine), vasodilatory (e.g. vincamine), antiarrhythmic (e.g. quinidine), analgesic (e.g. morphine), antibacterial (e.g. chelerythrine), and antihyperglycemic activities (e.g. piperine).

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), and have been used in entheogenic rituals or as recreational drugs. Alkaloids can be toxic too (e.g. atropine, tubocurarine). Although alkaloids act on a diversity of metabolic systems in humans and other animals, they almost uniformly evoke a bitter taste. The boundary between alkaloids and other nitrogen-containing natural compounds is not clear-cut. Compounds like amino acid peptides, proteins, nucleotides, nucleic acid, amines, and antibiotics are usually not called alkaloids. Natural compounds containing nitrogen in the exocyclic position (mescaline, serotonin, dopamine, etc.) are usually classified as amines rather than as alkaloids. Some authors, however, consider alkaloids a special case of amines.

It is quite difficult to give a precise definition for the class of compounds referred to as alkaloids. However it is probably fair to say that the definition proposed by Ladenburg in the late 1880s is probably reasonable and still valid today. Ladenburg suggested that alkaloids were compounds:

  • derived from plants
  • with a basic character (hence the term alkaloid from alkali)
  • contained a nitrogen based heterocylic ring within their molecules

In general alkaloids are physiologically very active and often extremely poisonous - they are the "bad guys" of the natural products world. Having said this, many find applications in medicine when administered in small doses.

The name "alkaloids" (German: Alkaloide) was introduced in 1819 by the German chemist Carl Friedrich Wilhelm Meisner, and is derived from late Latin root Latin: alkali (which, in turn, comes from the Arabic al-qalwi – "ashes of plants") and the suffix Greek "like". 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. There is no unique method of naming alkaloids. Many individual names are formed by adding the suffix "ine" to the species or genus name. For example, atropine is isolated from the plant Atropa belladonna, strychnine is obtained from the seed of Strychnine tree (Strychnos nux-vomica L.). If several alkaloids are extracted from one plant then their names often contain suffixes "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); these are called vinca alkaloids.

Alkaloid-containing plants have been used by humans since ancient times for therapeutic and recreational purposes. For example, medicinal plants have been known in the Mesopotamia at least around 2000 BC. The Odyssey of Homer referred to a gift given to Helen by the Egyptian queen, a drug bringing oblivion. It is believed that the gift was an opium-containing drug. A Chinese book on houseplants written in 1st–3rd centuries BC mentioned a medical use of Ephedra and opium poppies. Also, coca leaves have been used by South American Indians since ancient times. Extracts from plants containing toxic alkaloids, such as aconitine and tubocurarine, were used since antiquity for poisoning arrows. 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" in honor of 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). 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.

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.

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