ISU researchers poised to help unlock mysteries of medicinal benefits of plants

Ames, IA − Researchers at Iowa State University, together with colleagues at institutions around the country, have developed resources that may lead to discovery of new, medicinally important compounds found in plants.

The resources were developed, in part, by Medicinal Plant Consortium (MPC) principal investigators Eve Syrkin Wurtele, professor in the Department of Genetics, Development and Cell Biology, and Basil Nikolau, professor in the Department of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology, both of ISU.

The research grew out of a $6 million initiative from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study how the genes of plants contribute to production of various chemical compounds, some of which are medicinally important.

"Our major goal in this project has been to capture the genetic and biochemical blueprints of medicinal plants for the advancement of drug discovery and development," said Wurtele. "We have stored that information in a searchable database, so that it is easily accessible to all biological and medical researchers."

"Most people are familiar with natural products we derive from plants," Wurtele added. "These include the fragrances that go into perfumes, soaps, household cleaning products and more. Just as some plant chemicals have sensory properties that interact with and trigger your sense of smell, other plant compounds can target and cause a reaction within your body, or have anti-microbial activity. This gives them tremendous pharmaceutical potential."

"Thanks to the funding received for these projects, the talents and skills of experts from all of these institutions have been brought together with the goal of forging a new model in drug discovery," Nikolau added.

Some well-known medicines have come from plants. The foxglove plant gives us the cardiac muscle stimulant digoxin. The periwinkle plant offers a source for the widely used chemotherapy drugs vincristine and vinblastine. These and other medicinal plants, some of which are found in household gardens and flower boxes, contain many compounds ripe for discovering and developing diverse medicinal applications, researchers believe.

"The current understanding of the molecules and genes involved in the formation of plant-derived medicinal compounds is very incomplete. However, the ability to conduct genome-wide studies of model plant species has resulted in an explosive increase in our knowledge of and capacity to understand the biological processes," Nikolau said.

During this two-year project, researchers set out to collect data that helps researchers understand how plants make chemicals, a process called biosynthesis.

This research could make it possible to engineer plants to produce larger quantities of medicinally useful compounds as well as different versions with other therapeutic potential, according to the researchers.

To develop these resources, researchers studied the genes and chemical composition of 14 plants known for their medicinal properties or compounds with biological activity. These included plants such as foxglove, ginseng and periwinkle. These efforts are now providing a rich toolbox for researchers to discover how nature's chemical diversity is created. This may help scientists uncover new drug candidates and increase the efficacy of existing ones.

The work of the MPC included obtaining materials for all the medicinal plants used in this study. The MPC then determined the plants' chemical profiles and obtained their genetic blueprints to study how genes control the various chemical compositions.

"This work offers a valuable data resource for understanding the genes, enzymes and complex processes responsible for the biosynthesis of important plant-derived drugs," said Warren Jones, who manages this and other research grants in biotechnology at NIH's National Institute of General Medical Sciences. "The collaborative effort should greatly contribute to our ability to understand and exploit the rich biochemistry found in plants."

The MPC project also includes participants from Michigan State University, East Lansing; the University of Mississippi, Oxford; Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind.; Texas A&M University, College Station; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge; University of Kentucky, Lexington; and the John Innes Institute in Norwich, England.

More information about the MPC and the resources provided are available at or