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'Walking in the Woods with Chemistry' extended

By Dave Jones on December 7, 2015 in University

You have four more months to go "Walking in the Woods with Chemistry." Originally scheduled to conclude today (Dec. 7), this exhibit in the arboretum has been extended through March 31.

Walking in the Woods with Chemistry, which opened in September, is the work of Dean Tantillo, professor of chemistry; Philipp Zerbe, assistant professor of plant biology; and Nhu Nguyen, a chemistry Ph.D. candidate.

The exhibit is about molecules produced by plants, and how we use those molecules in our daily lives and how those molecules have inspired research at UC Davis and other universities.

Walking in the Woods with Chemistry explores such questions as: Have you ever wondered what makes up the flavor of your wine? Or how a plant can cure cancer? What the smell is in your perfume? Or how a tree defends itself?

The exhibit comprises 13 molecules in multiple locations in the arboretum (see box). Each site includes a model of a molecule that comes from a nearby plant, and a sign identifying the molecule and its uses. Each sign also has a QR code leading you to more information.

The model-making started on a computer, using the same programs the researchers use in their labs, and ended with the models coming out of a 3-D printer. Each one is identified by Braille type.

‘The (bio)chemistry behind it all’

All of the molecules in the exhibit are also known as metabolites, which describes molecules that are part of biosynthetic pathways, i.e., the formation of chemical compounds by groups of enzymes.

Zerbe, who identified plants of interest for the exhibition, said: “My great motivation to join Dean and Nhu in this project is that we use plant-derived metabolites every day, but rarely recognize this fact. The arboretum is a fantastic place to showcase just how much our daily life depends on plants, and how researchers at UC Davis work together to better understand the (bio)chemistry behind it all.”

Tantillo and Zerbe described Nguyen as the “mastermind” behind “Walking in the Woods with Chemistry,” and she in turn credited Elaine Fingerett, the arboretum’s academic coordinator, for welcoming the idea and helping to make the project a reality.

Nguyen did her undergraduate studies at UC Davis, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry in the spring of 2012 and then joining Tantillo’s lab in the fall.

“Art has always been a big part of my life, and I hope this project illustrates a place where art meets science, as well as offering a glimpse into the many connections between science and nature,” Nguyen said.

She’s no stranger to the arboretum, having been on campus since 2008. On her walks and bike rides, she said, she’s collected “an arboretum photo collection that I’m very proud of.”

Tantillo also is on familiar ground: “This exhibit allows me to combine my interests in trees, molecules they produce and walking through the woods.”

Read more about the exhibit and the process of identifying the molecules and making the models.

Tantillo Group (theoretical organic chemistry)

Zerbe Group (unraveling plant metabolic diversity for improved human well-being)

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Media contact(s)

Dave Jones, Dateline, 530-752-6556,