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Phenolic compounds are synthesized industrially; they also are produced by plants and microorganisms, with variation between and within species.
Although similar to alcohols, phenols have unique properties and are not classified as alcohols (since the hydroxyl group is not bonded to a saturated carbon atom). They have higher acidities due to the aromatic ring's tight coupling with the oxygen and a relatively loose bond between the oxygen and hydrogen. The acidity of the hydroxyl group in phenols is commonly intermediate between that of aliphatic alcohols and carboxylic acids (their pKa is usually between 10 and 12).
Loss of a hydrogen cation (H+) from the hydroxyl group of a phenol forms a corresponding negative phenolate ion or phenoxide ion, and the corresponding salts are called phenolates or phenoxides, although the term aryloxides is preferred according to the IUPAC Gold Book. Phenols can have two or more hydroxy groups bonded to the aromatic ring(s) in the same molecule. The simplest examples are the three benzenediols, each having two hydroxy groups on a benzene ring.
Organisms that synthesize phenolic compounds do so in response to ecological pressures such as pathogen and insect attack, UV radiation and wounding. As they are present in food consumed in human diets and in plants used in traditional medicine of several cultures, their role in human health and disease is a subject of research.:104 Some phenols are germicidal and are used in formulating disinfectants. Others possess estrogenic or endocrine disrupting activity.
They can also be classified on the basis of their number of phenol groups. They can therefore be called simple phenols or monophenols, with only one phenolic group, or di- (bi-), tri- and oligophenols, with two, three or several phenolic groups respectively.
The phenolic unit can be found dimerized or further polymerized, creating a new class of polyphenol. For example, ellagic acid is a dimer of gallic acid and forms the class of ellagitannins, or a catechin and a gallocatechin can combine to form the red compound theaflavin, a process that also results in the large class of brown thearubigins in tea.
Two natural phenols from two different categories, for instance a flavonoid and a lignan, can combine to form a hybrid class like the flavonolignans.
Phenol-phenolate equilibrium, and resonance structures giving rise to phenolaromatic reactivity. See also the images at the wiki pages for phenols.
Neutral phenol substructure "shape". An image of a computed electrostatic surface of neutral phenol, showing neutral regions in green, electronegative areas in orange-red, and the electropositive phenolic proton in blue.
The majority of these compounds are solubles molecules but the smaller molecules can be volatiles.
As molecules with higher conjugation levels undergo this bathochromic shift phenomenon, a part of the visible spectrum is absorbed. The wavelengths left in the process (generally in red section of the spectrum) recompose the color of the particular substance. Acylation with cinnamic acids of anthocyanidins shifted color tonality (CIE Lab hue angle) to purple.
Here is a series of UV visible spectra of molecules classified from left to right according to their conjugation level:
Chromatograms showing the oxidation of a proanthocyanidin B2 dimer. New peaks have appeared in the oxidised sample.
Natural phenols are reactive species toward oxidation, notably the complex mixture of phenolics, found in food for example, can undergo autoxidation during the ageing process. Simple natural phenols can lead to the formation of B-type procyanidins in wines or in model solutions. This is correlated to the non enzymatic browning color change characteristic of this process. This phenomenon can be observed in foods like carrot purees.
Browning associated with oxidation of phenolic compounds has also been given as the cause of cells death in calli formed in in vitro cultures. Those phenolics originate both from explant tissues and from explant secretions.
Phenolics are formed by three different biosynthetic pathways: (i) the shikimate/chorizmate or succinylbenzoate pathway, which produces the phenyl propanoid derivatives (C6-C3); (ii) the acetate/malonate or polyketide pathway, which produces the side-chain-elongated phenyl propanoids, including the large group of flavonoids (C6-C3-C6) and some quinones; and (iii) the acetate/mevalonate pathway, which produces the aromatic terpenoids, mostly monoterpenes, by dehydrogenation reactions. The aromatic amino acid phenylalanine, synthesized in the shikimic acid pathway, is the common precursor of phenol containing amino acids and phenolic compounds.
Methylations can occur by the formation of an ether bond on hydroxyl groups forming O-methylated polyphenols. In the case of the O-methylated flavonetangeritin, all of the five hydroxyls are methylated, leaving no free hydroxyls of the phenol group. Methylations can also occur on directly on a carbon of the benzene ring like in the case of poriol, a C-methylated flavonoid.
Several laboratory methods for the synthesis of phenols:
Some phenols are sold as dietary supplements. Phenols have been investigated as drugs. For instance, Crofelemer (USAN, trade name Fulyzaq) is a drug under development for the treatment of diarrhea associated with anti-HIV drugs. Additionally, derivatives have been made of phenolic compound, combretastatin A-4, an anticancer molecule, including nitrogen or halogens atoms to increase the efficacy of the treatment.
Industrial processing and analysis
Phenol extraction is a processing technology used to prepare phenols as raw materials, compounds or additives for industrial wood processing and for chemical industries.
Extraction can be performed using different solvents. There is a risk that polyphenol oxidase (PPO) degrades the phenolic content of the sample therefore there is a need to use PPO inhibitors like potassium dithionite (K2S2O4) or to perform experiment using liquid nitrogen or to boil the sample for a few seconds (blanching) to inactivate the enzyme. Further fractionation of the extract can be achieved using solid phase extraction columns, and may lead to isolation of individual compounds.
The recovery of natural phenols from biomass residue is part of biorefining.
A method for phenolic content quantification is volumetric titration. An oxidizing agent, permanganate, is used to oxidize known concentrations of a standard solution, producing a standard curve. The content of the unknown phenols is then expressed as equivalents of the appropriate standard.
Lamaison and Carnet have designed a test for the determination of the total flavonoid content of a sample (AlCI3 method). After proper mixing of the sample and the reagent, the mixture is incubated for 10 minutes at ambient temperature and the absorbance of the solution is read at 440 nm. Flavonoid content is expressed in mg/g of quercetin.
Other tests measure the antioxidant capacity of a fraction. Some make use of the 2,2'-azino-bis(3-ethylbenzothiazoline-6-sulphonic acid) (ABTS) radical cation, which is reactive towards most antioxidants including phenolics, thiols and vitamin C. During this reaction, the blue ABTS radical cation is converted back to its colorless neutral form. The reaction may be monitored spectrophotometrically. This assay is often referred to as the Trolox equivalent antioxidant capacity (TEAC) assay. The reactivity of the various antioxidants tested are compared to that of Trolox, which is a vitamin E analog.
A cellular antioxidant activity (CAA) assay also exists. Dichlorofluorescin is a probe that is trapped within cells and is easily oxidized to fluorescent dichlorofluorescein (DCF). The method measures the ability of compounds to prevent the formation of DCF by 2,2'-Azobis(2-amidinopropane) dihydrochloride (ABAP)-generated peroxyl radicals in human hepatocarcinoma HepG2 cells.
The phenolic biosynthetic and metabolic pathways and enzymes can be studied by mean of transgenesis of genes. The Arabidopsis regulatory gene for production of Anthocyanin Pigment 1 (AtPAP1) can be expressed in other plant species.
Phenols are found in the natural world, especially in the plant kingdom.
The hardening of the protein component of insect cuticle has been shown to be due to the tanning action of an agent produced by oxidation of a phenolic substance forming sclerotin. In the analogous hardening of the cockroach ootheca, the phenolic substance concerned is 3:4-dihydroxybenzoic acid (protocatechuic acid).
In soils, it is assumed that larger amounts of phenols are released from decomposing plant litter rather than from throughfall in any natural plant community. Decomposition of dead plant material causes complex organic compounds to be slowly oxidized lignin-like humus or to break down into simpler forms (sugars and amino sugars, aliphatic and phenolic organic acids), which are further transformed into microbial biomass (microbial humus) or are reorganized, and further oxidized, into humic assemblages (fulvic and humic acids), which bind to clay minerals and metal hydroxides. There has been a long debate about the ability of plants to uptake humic substances from their root systems and to metabolize them. There is now a consensus about how humus plays a hormonal role rather than simply a nutritional role in plant physiology.
In the soil, soluble phenols face four different fates. They might be degraded and mineralized as a carbon source by heterotrophic microorganisms; they can be transformed into insoluble and recalcitrant humic substances by polymerization and condensation reactions (with the contribution of soil organisms); they might adsorb to clay minerals or form chelates with aluminium or iron ions; or they might remain in dissolved form, leached by percolating water, and finally leave the ecosystem as part of dissolved organic carbon (DOC).
Leaching is the process by which cations such as iron (Fe) and aluminum (Al), as well as organic matter are removed from the litterfall and transported downward into the soil below. This process is known as podzolization and is particularly intense in boreal and cool temperate forests that are mainly constituted by coniferous pines whose litterfall is rich in phenolic compounds and fulvic acid.
Role in survival
Phenolic compounds can act as protective agents, inhibitors, natural animal toxicants and pesticides against invading organisms, i.e. herbivores, nematodes, phytophagous insects, and fungal and bacterial pathogens. The scent and pigmentation conferred by other phenolics can attract symbiotic microbes, pollinators and animals that disperse fruits.
Defense against predators
Volatile phenolic compounds are found in plant resin where they may attract benefactors such as parasitoids or predators of the herbivores that attack the plant.
In the kelp species Alaria marginata, phenolics act as chemical defence against herbivores. In tropical Sargassum and Turbinaria species that are often preferentially consumed by herbivorousfishes and echinoids, there is a relatively low level of phenolics and tannins. Marine allelochemicals generally are present in greater quantity and diversity in tropical than in temperate regions. Marine algal phenolics have been reported as an apparent exception to this biogeographic trend. High phenolic concentrations occur in brown algae species (orders Dictyotales and Fucales) from both temperate and tropical regions, indicating that latitude alone is not a reasonable predictor of plant phenolic concentrations.
In plants, VirA is a protein histidine kinase which senses certain sugars and phenolic compounds. These compounds are typically found from wounded plants, and as a result VirA is used by Agrobacterium tumefaciens to locate potential host organisms for infection.
Acetosyringone has been best known for its involvement in plant-pathogen recognition, especially its role as a signal attracting and transforming unique, oncogenic bacteria in genus Agrobacterium. The virA gene on the Ti plasmid in the genome of Agrobacterium tumefaciens and Agrobacterium rhizogenes is used by these soil bacteria to infect plants, via its encoding for a receptor for acetosyringone and other phenolic phytochemicals exuded by plant wounds. This compound also allows higher transformation efficiency in plants, in A. tumefaciens mediated transformation procedures, and so is of importance in plant biotechnology.
In animals and humans, after ingestion, natural phenols become part of the xenobiotic metabolism. In subsequent phase II reactions, these activated metabolites are conjugated with charged species such as glutathione, sulfate, glycine or glucuronic acid. These reactions are catalysed by a large group of broad-specificity transferases. UGT1A6 is a human gene encoding a phenol UDP glucuronosyltransferase active on simple phenols. The enzyme encoded by the gene UGT1A8 has glucuronidase activity with many substrates including coumarins, anthraquinones and flavones.
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Biochemistry of phenolic compounds, by J. B. Harborne, 1964, Academic Press (Google Books)