December 21, 2016

Plant Medicine

UMass Amherst student researchers find scientific pathways to botanical therapeutics

Entering the enclosed, temperature-regulated space of UMass Amherst’s Plant Cell Culture Library, you are immediately hit by a scent in the air that is unfamiliar yet redolent of life.

Senior biochemistry and molecular biology major John Solitro explains, “That’s the volatile compounds. That smell means all the plants are happy and busy making molecules.” Solitro is a “next generation thinker,” one of many undergrads, graduate students, and postdocs playing an integral role in the success of the Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS).

Undergraduate students working with faculty in the institute can pursue their life sciences research interests with the latest equipment in state-of-the-art facilities, comparable to those they will work in after graduation. With close collaboration between IALS and the life sciences industry, students can develop important relationships for future internships and research opportunities.

Also part of IALS is the plant library. That one, small, walk-in-closet-size room holds thousands of plants in the form of undifferentiated cell cultures—a library of life collected from around the planet. The library has been termed a “biofoundry,” which means it makes these cells available for research to academia and private industry.

Undergraduate students working with faculty in the institute can pursue their life sciences research interests with the latest equipment in state-of-the-art facilities, comparable to those they will work in after graduation.

Currently, some cell cultures are being “checked out” by undergraduate researchers seeking to discover antimicrobial properties inside one of the plants.

Solitro was profiling plant pigments to find sustainable, natural dyes when he uncovered a surprising fact: there are currently very few antibiotics derived from plants, even though plants have been used therapeutically by humans for millennia.

Plant-based medicine provides a new—well, actually ancient—model for health maintenance and defense. Solitro has teamed up with his BMB colleague Paul Travers to understand these processes scientifically. Plants have an innate anti-microbial potential: when cultured with pathogenic bacteria, they produce anti-bacterial materials, indicating that plant cells can sense microbial cues and shift their metabolism to protect themselves.

Travers currently is working with the highly deadly (and so far incurable) Fusarium fungus in hopes to find a plant-based cure. His method is to incubate cells from plants with Fusarium, then harvest and analyze the phytomolecules they release in order to determine each plant’s antifungal properties.

Only a fraction of the compounds in plants have been explored, so the fields of plant-based research lie wide open for discovery. Under the direction of chemist Sergey Savinov and biologist Li-Jun Ma of the IALS Models to Medicine Center, Travers and Solitro are leading teams of their peers to collaborate on understanding this synergistic model.

Since “unlike us, plants can’t run away from a problem,” Savinov points out, they are highly adapted for their own defense. The chemistries they yield can provide humans with scientifically verified botanical options to accompany currently available biopharmaceutical ones.