How Catnip Makes the Chemical That Causes Cats to go Crazy

Today we would like to talk about science! Many of us already know the fun our cats have with plants such as catnip but do you actually know WHY it is certain plants such as catnip that generate this effect?

Researchers at John Innes Centre have shed light on how catnip – also known as catmint – produces the chemical that sends cats into a state of wanton abandon.

The remarkable effect catnip has on cats is well-known thanks to the scores on online videos showing pets enjoying its intoxicating highs.

*Cat toys shown in the video are the 4cats premium range

The substance that triggers this state of feline ecstasy is called nepetalactone, a type of chemical called a terpene. This simple, small molecule is part of an unusual chain of events, not previously seen by chemists.

The researchers believe that understanding the production of these nepetalactones could help them recreate the way that plants synthesise other chemicals like vinblastine, which is used for chemotherapy. This could lead to the ability to create these useful medicines more efficiently and quickly than we are currently able to harvest them from nature.

Usually in plants, for example peppermint, terpenes are formed by a single enzyme. In their paper published online this week in Nature Chemical Biology, the researchers report that in catnip terpenes are formed in a two-step process; an enzyme activates a precursor compound which is then grabbed by a second enzyme to produce the substance of interest.

This two-step process has previously never been observed, and the researchers also expect something similar is occurring in the synthesis of anti-cancer drugs vincristine and vinblastine from Madagascan periwinkle,Catharanthus roseus, and elsewhere in olive and snapdragon.

In the publication, the team describe the process by which catmint produces nepetalactone in microscopic glands on the underside of its leaves. The study also identifies three new enzymes with unusual activity.

Dr Benjamin Lichman, who conducted the work while a post-doc at John Innes Centre and who is now a lecturer at the University of York, says: “We have made significant progress in understanding how catnip makes nepetalactones, the chemicals that sends cats crazy. Catnip is performing unusual and unique chemical processes, and we plan to use these to help us create useful compounds that can be used in the treatment of diseases such as cancer. We are also working to understand the evolution of catnip to understand how it came to produce the cat-active chemicals.”

Photo Credit: Phil Robinson

Professor Sarah O’Connor, project leader at the John Innes Centre, says: “Nepetalactones have potential use in agriculture as they participate in certain plant-insect interactions. In future work, we will explore the roles that these compounds have in plants.”

Image Captions: Left: Catmint in action. Right: Catmint produces nepetalactone in microscopic glands on the underside of its leaves

Credit: John Innes Centre

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4 thoughts on “How Catnip Makes the Chemical That Causes Cats to go Crazy

  1. Léa says:

    Alas, out of three felines, only one has even a mild interest in catnip? They do march to the beat of a different drummer. 😉

  2. Kris says:

    Catnip is interesting. I finally have a plant in the yard after almost a decade of trying. It just showed up one summer and has managed to survive! The catmint is in a barrel, the cats sleep in it, but do not chew it unless I clip some off and manually give it to them. The spider plants are hard to keep alive with the cats around and I have no idea why! Maybe it’s the name? Cats do like crunchy spiders for some reason….

    • Marc-André says:

      I’ve heard from many people that their cats eat spider plants. I wonder what attracts them to those. ?

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