Advanced glycation endproducts (AGE), the result of nonenzymatic reactions between protein amines and sugar aldehydes, have been implicated in age-related diseases as well as complications related to diabetes (diabetics undergo serum glucose spikes that increase the rate of AGE formation). Because these compounds contain azomethine bonds that don’t occur (on purpose) in biological macromolecules, cellular degradation enzymes generally have a hard time clearing them, and they accumulate over time. On the other hand, the unusual chemistry itself increase the chances that we might be able to reverse these bonds without interfering with the rest of the cellular machinery.

Another tactic would be to prevent AGEs from forming in the first place, which according to a recent study might be possible using compounds derived from the agricultural waste product (and bane of summer picnickers) corn silk. Farsi et al report that silks from several modern corn strains are capable of inhibiting nonenzymatic glycation in vitro, with the activity strongest in varieties bred to resist specific types of fungal infection. The mechanism of inhibition is not clear or even a ready subject for idle speculation (if you will, take a moment and bend your head around how one might specifically inhibit an uncatalyzed, non-specific reaction that can occur between a broad range of molecules); nor is it not obvious whether the phenolic compounds in the silk extracts could be made bioavailable without extensive modification. Still, once the chemistry of inhibition is elucidated, the silk-derived molecules could provide inspiration for therapeutics capable of stopping AGEs before they start.

Chalk up one more for nature’s corn-ucopia.