Alkaloids are compounds which contain mainly nitrogen along with some hydrogen and carbon. They may also contain oxygen and sulphur. More rarely other elements may be present including phosphorous, bromine and chlorine. They are derived from primary metabolites including amino acids like lysine, tyrosine and tryptophan. Most are salts of organic acids e.g. acetic, citric and oxalic acids. Alkaloids have certain chemical characteristics such as reacting chemically like alkaline substances because of the presence of a nitrogen atom. Many are highly toxic if consumed by animals and they often taste bitter.
Some alkaloids have great medicinal value if used carefully. Alkaloids have many different effects on the human body, for example morphine and codeine in opium are well known pain relieving alkaloids. Vinblastine is an anti-cancer alkaloid. Others include sanguinarine which is an antibiotic, scopolamine which is a sedative, tubocuranine which is a muscle relaxant, colchicines used to suppress gout, and ajmalicine which acts as a an antiarrhythmic combating irregular patterns of heartbeats. Nicotine in tobacco is also an alkaloid, as is caffeine in coffee and tea beverages and these both act as stimulants.
Alkaloids may be found throughout whole plants or they may be concentrated in certain plant parts like seeds, bark or roots. Nicotine and tropane alkaloids are made in the roots and then transported to above ground parts. Some, such as nicotinic acid derivatives, are found in many plants albeit in different forms. Also, some are found in particular plant families or groups of plants. For example, the anticholinergic alkaloids scopolamine, atropine and hyoscyamine are mainly found in plants from the solanaceae family. Toxic tropane alkaloids are found in berries of plants form the convolvulaceae, solanaceae and erythroxylaceae families.
Many isoquinoline alkaloids are found in plants of the papaveraceae, ranunculaceae, berbidaceae, and menispermaceae families. Amongst these is the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) which contains three of these alkaloids in morphine, thebaine and codeine.
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