Natural Versus Synthetic Organic Compounds

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It is a popular belief that natural substances—those made in nature—are superior to synthetic ones—those made in the laboratory. Yet when a chemist synthesizes a compound, such as penicillin or morphine, the compound is the same in all respects as the compound synthesized in nature. Sometimes chemists can even improve on nature. For example, chemists have synthesized analogues of penicillin—compounds with structures similar to that of penicillin—that do not produce the allergic responses that a significant fraction of the population experiences from naturally produced penicillin or that do not have the bacterial resistance of the naturally produced antibiotic.

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Chemists have also synthesized analogues of morphine that have the same pain-killing effects but, unlike morphine, are not habit-forming. Most commercial morphine is obtained from opium, the juice extracted from the species of poppy. Morphine is the starting material for the synthesis of heroin. One of the side products formed in the synthesis has an extremely pungent odor; dogs used by drug enforcement agencies are trained to recognize this odor. Nearly three-quarters of the world’s supply of heroin comes from the poppy fields of Afghanistan.

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