Relieving Two Headaches with One Process

Photo of John RalphWith a new method to synthesize a popular pain-relieving medication from plants rather than fossil fuels, researchers at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center have found a way to relieve two headaches at once.

A team led by John Ralph, a professor of biochemistry and Integrated Program in Biochemistry (IPiB) faculty member at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, has been awarded a patent for a method to synthesize acetaminophen — the active ingredient in Tylenol — from a natural compound derived from plant material. The approach offers a renewable alternative to the current manufacturing process, which uses chemicals derived from coal tar. It also creates a useful product from an abundant but difficult-to-manage component of plant cell walls called lignin.

“Lignin is an extremely complex, messy polymer. No two molecules in a plant are exactly the same,” Ralph says. “It’s very effective for providing structure and defense for the plant, but it’s challenging for us to break down into useable materials.”

The lignin in bioenergy crops, such as poplar, can create a headache for bioenergy researchers due to its recalcitrant tendencies, Ralph says. Once plant sugars are used to produce biofuels, the lignin that remains is typically burned for energy.

The patent application, filed by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, describes a way to convert a molecule found on lignin into acetaminophen. It was awarded in May to Ralph, Steven Karlen of UW–Madison, and Justin Mobley, a former GLBRC postdoctoral fellow who is now at the University of Kentucky.

Read more about this research at the link below.