Acetogenins: Definition & Sources

Instructor: Wasala Herath
Acetogenins are natural compounds found in plants like custard apple. They are derived from fatty acids showing biological properties beneficial for human health. Among them, their promising anti-cancer properties have captured the attention of scientists.

Paw Paw Fruits

Would you like a drink that tastes of mango, pineapple and banana? That flavor can be found in a single fruit from the paw paw tree. This tree is native to eastern North America and belongs to the custard apple family called Annonaceae.

The paw paw tree and fruits
Paw paw fruits

Remember the song, ''The Bear Necessities'' in the Disney film, The Jungle Book? In it, Baloo the Bear sings about eating from a paw paw tree. This tree has fruits that aren't just delicious, but contain acetogenins that may help to fight cancer. Let's take a look at these natural substances in more detail.


What is the secret behind the medicinal value of the custard apple family? Scientists working in this area have a prompt answer, acetogenins! These are kite-shaped molecules having a carbon skeleton with hydrogen and oxygen.

The structure of the acetogenin uvaricin.

The head of the kite is a five sided structure called a lactone. The tail is a long chain of knots, each of which consists of carbon and hydrogen.

Different acetogenins have different structures, resulting in interesting medicinal properties. For example, the number of carbons in the tail can vary from 35 to 37. The acetogenin called gigantetroneninone has variations that involve the number and position of different oxygen-containing groups and unsaturated bonds.

The structure of gigantetroneninone with oxygen-containing groups and unsaturated bonds

Where Are Acetogenins Found?

Acetogenins are found in two plant families, the custard apple family and the laurel plant family (Lauraceae). Both families occur mostly in the tropics, but they both contain some temperate species.

Custard Apple Family

Most of these useful medicinal values of the paw paw tree are also observed in other custard family members as well. You may be familiar with some of plants of this large family, like the soursop, sugar apple or perfume tree.

The most interesting feature of this family that attracted scientists is their cancer-fighting properties. Research shows that they can block the formation of high energy molecules needed for the survival of the cancer cells. Energy in the food is converted to high energy molecules called adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which can be utilized by the cell for its survival. Acetogenins block the formation of ATP.

Can you believe that the soursop tree has provided us with over 100 acetogenins? Almost 50 other plants of the family added 340 more, but over two thousand plants are yet to be investigated!

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