萜烯:世界上最常见的语言 Terpenes: The Most Common Language in the World

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You've probably never heard of it by name, but there's a language on Earth more popular than Mandarin, more widespread than English, and more universal than interpretive dance. It isn't spoken, and it isn't viewed.

It's smelled. I'm talking about terpenesa multipurpose class of chemical compounds that can be used to communicate both within and across species.

They're used in all kinds of ways, from hungry eavesdropping microorganisms to brief back-and-forth conversations between creatures you would never think would be up for a chat. All a molecule has to do to be considered a terpene is have the right structure.

They're made up of multiple subunits of an organic molecule called isoprene, which has five carbon atoms. These subunits can be arranged in a line, or form rings, or both, leading to a diverse collection of over 30,000 known compounds.

Because it's so broad a label, terpenes can have lots of different biological functionslike as vitamins, hormones, or part of the immune system. They're also a really common source of scents in plantsyou might've heard people talk about terpenes as the chemicals that give different strains of cannabis different aromas, and they're responsible for the scent of things like peppermint and fir trees.

One reason these smells are strong is that terpenes tend to be volatile, meaning that they evaporate easily. Which also makes them super useful for communicationthey can travel long distances and be detected by a second party.

Some terpenes are used to communicate within the same species, in which case we'd call them a pheromone. One example is androstenol, which is emitted by male pigs to signal a nearby female to assume a mating stance.

By definition, pheromones are only used to communicate within the same species. But because terpenes are so diverse, some can be used to send information between entirely different kingdoms. Kingdoms of life, I mean.

Not, like, Rohan and Gondor. Terpenes aren't the only kinds of molecules species use to communicate with each other, but they are some of the most common.

Lots of sweet-smelling flowers, for instance, use terpenes to attract pollinators. But plants can also use them to keep critters away.

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