Vaccine Lab / Alfa Chemistry
The Surprising Properties of Saponins: More than Just Soap
Contact Us

Our customer services representatives are available 24 hours a day, from Monday to Sunday.


The Surprising Properties of Saponins: More than Just Soap

What Are Saponins?

Saponins are a diverse group of compounds commonly found in various plant sources. The name "saponin" is derived from the Latin word "sapo," which means soap. This is due to their characteristic ability to produce suds or foams when mixed with water. Chemically, saponins are glycosides, meaning they consist of a steroidal or triterpenoid aglycone (sapogenin), which is attached to one or more sugar chains (glycosides).

Structure of saponin.Structure of saponin. [1]

Saponins have long been recognized for their diverse biological activities, including antimicrobial, antifungal, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, antitumor, and immunomodulatory effects. Their amphipathic nature, arising from a characteristic sapogenin, is crucial for their ability to interact with and disrupt cellular membranes, leading to numerous biological effects.

Characteristics of Saponins

  • Foaming Properties
    This property is due to the presence of hydrophilic sugar chains and hydrophobic aglycone moiety, which lowers surface tension and stabilizes small bubbles.
  • Amphipathic Nature
    Saponins are amphipathic, meaning they have both hydrophilic and hydrophobic regions. This property allows them to interact with both water-soluble and lipid-soluble compounds.
  • Biological Activities
    Saponins can act as plant growth regulators, antioxidants, antimicrobials, anti-inflammatory agents, and potential pharmaceuticals.
  • Hemolytic Activity
    Some saponins have the ability to lyse red blood cells, leading to their classification as hemolytic agents. This property can be harnessed for applications such as forming stable emulsions or for use as detergents.

Biosynthesis of Saponins

Saponins are derived from the isoprenoid pathway, combining both acetate and mevalonate building blocks. The biosynthetic pathways leading to the synthesis of sapogenins involve cyclization of 2,3-oxidosqualene, a key intermediate produced by triterpene synthases. Subsequent modifications, including hydroxylation, glycosylation, and acylation, generate the diverse array of saponin structures found in nature.

Biosynthesis of saponins in plants.Biosynthesis of saponins in plants. [2]

Saponins for Traditional Medicine

Saponins have been used in traditional medicine for centuries due to their various health benefits. They possess anti-inflammatory, immunomodulatory, antioxidant, and antimicrobial properties, making them valuable for treating various diseases and conditions. For example, some saponins have been found to have potential anticancer activity and have been investigated as possible chemotherapeutic agents.

Saponins as Vaccine Adjuvants

One of the advantages of using saponins as vaccine adjuvants is that they have both immunostimulatory and immunomodulatory effects. They can activate various immune cells, such as dendritic cells and macrophages, leading to the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines and enhancing antigen presentation. Saponin adjuvants have been extensively studied for use in veterinary and human vaccines.

QS-21 is one of the most promising investigational immune adjuvants that can enhance balanced Th1/Th2 responses by generating antigen-specific cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL). However, it is worth noting that it has some inherent disadvantages, including scarcity, chemical instability, and toxicity. More modification strategies need to be explored for the development of variants with effective adjuvant activity, increased stability, and reduced toxicity. [3]

The structure-activity relationships of saponins.The structure-activity relationships of saponins. [3]


  1. Timilsena Y P, et al. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 2023, 24(17), 13538.
  2. Mugford S T, et al. Isoprenoid synthesis in plants and microorganisms, 2013, 405-424.
  3. Fernandez-Tejada A, et al. Accounts of Chemical Research, 2016, 49(9), 1741-1756.

Our products and services are for research use only and cannot be used for any clinical purposes.