Asked to name their state’s native riches, most North Carolinians would likely say the rugged mountains, the relaxing seashore.
Few would mention the wealth of plant life, from the showy rhododendron lining mountain highways to the tiny lady’s slippers tucked away in the forests.
Yet because of a quirk of history, North Carolina is second only to California in the diversity of its plants, said plant physiologist Joe-Ann McCoy, director of the N.C. Arboretum Germplasm Repository in Asheville.
The last several ice ages, which wreaked havoc on much of the continent, spared the area.
“Our plants didn’t get killed off,” McCoy said. The lack of glaciation gave “more uninterrupted opportunity for the plants to flourish,” and their descendants thrive today.
Now the repository, plus a couple of heavy hitters in the funding field, are betting that this multitude of plants can be mined for another kind of wealth: new drugs and natural remedies.
For the last several years, the repository, funded by its parent University of North Carolina system and grants from the Golden Leaf Foundation and the N.C. Biotech Center, has gathered and preserved plants presumed to have medical potential.
2,000 samples extracted
From them, repository scientists have extracted some 2,000 samples of plant matter and of the beneficial endophytes (bacteria and fungi) that live within the plants.
They were amazed when they screened the extracts for disease-fighting activity, using two common bacteria , E. coli (intestinal disorders) and Staphylococcus aureus (staph infections) and one fungus, Candida albicans (yeast infections) as invading agents.
“Our hit rate was twice as high as we expected,” McCoy said. From 8 to 30 percent of the extracts exhibited activity, depending on which microorganism was being targeted, and a significant number exhibited activity against all three.
McCoy and her staff chose the three common threats because “whatever is active against them is likely to be active in general,” McCoy said.
Now the repository is preparing to collaborate with scientists from two other institutions and would welcome more, McCoy said.
Working with universities and industries will extend the scope of the research into anti-carcinogenic, antiviral, anti-inflammatory and other specific areas, she hopes.
There are plenty of precedents: Aspirin first came from the bark of the willow tree, cancer-fighting taxol from the Pacific yew tree.
First with fungi
The repository is not the first institution to put North Carolina plants under the microscope, but its study is the broadest in scope and likely the first to extend research into their endophytes, said Dr. Cynthia Sollod, director of science and technology development for the Biotech Center.
Endophytes are a hot topic right now, she said, with some researchers considering them key to a plant’s disease-fighting and other chemical capabilities.
McCoy, said Sollod, “is one of the first to make this type of collection, endophytes, in the whole country.”
The repository’s extracts, Sollod said, “may have pharmacological uses; they may have uses in industry. They may have a huge benefit.”
Some of the fungi may never have been studied, McCoy said. “We probably have a few new species here.”
McCoy and Sollod would like to see the state finally reaping economic benefits from its plants.
Unhappily, that’s seldom been the case, McCoy said. Mountain residents for centuries have foraged in nearby forests for remedies for their aches and pains, and sometimes, those remedies have been co-opted by foreign corporations for large profits.
Black cohosh is a prime example, she said, of North Carolina “missing the boat.”
Wild-harvested along the East Coast, including North Carolina, it’s sold worldwide to relieve symptoms of menopause. It’s one of the 10 top-selling dietary supplements, according to McCoy: “It’s in every drugstore and Walmart, Kmart.”
But manufacturing is in Germany. “That’s where the jobs are,” McCoy said.
Ginseng, long associated with the Southern Appalachians, is another example. It’s so prized in Asian countries as a tonic that it’s even given as a wedding gift.
But the big money never trickles down to the wild harvesters, and it’s been so over-harvested that “We’re afraid it’s becoming very rare in the wild,” McCoy said.
“We would like to attract botanical products companies to come to our region.”
The germplasm repository was created, not to probe the disease-fighting capability of North Carolina’s plants, but to protect and preserve them so that their potential uses, medical and otherwise, would not be lost to the world.
Many, said McCoy, are under threat from over-harvesting, destruction of habitat through development, and global warming.
For six years, the five-person staff and a dozen or so volunteers have been combing the arboretum’s 434 acres and nearby Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests. They’ve collected some 2,500 plants, both the well-known and the obscure, and stored their seeds and other genetic material.
Some, such as black cohosh, are super-secure. Its genetic material is stored in three places: Scandinavia’s Nordic Gene Bank, the National Plant Germplasm System in Fort Collins, Colo., and the repository.
“This plant is bulletproof-safe,” McCoy said, and “We’re getting ready to do the same thing with ginseng.”
Once plants have been preserved and protected, “we can use them for research,” McCoy said.
When the opportunity to do extracts arose, she and her staff focused on plants with known or suspected medicinal properties, or that had relatives with medicinal properties. The search extended to South Carolina, where fungi were collected from algae on the coast.
Both unknown and little-known plants were used, and, said McCoy, even some of the obscure ones proved to be active against bacteria and fungi.
As collaborations with other researchers are negotiated, collection continues, for both conservation and extraction purposes.
The repository is also repeating its earlier tests. “With microbes, you have to make sure you have the same activity twice,” McCoy said.
As she tests, she hopes: “It would be great to find a wonderful cure originating from our specific region.”
Closing a freezer door on a collection of test tubes full of brightly colored endophytic material, she predicted: “There’s a cure for something in there.”