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Scientist travels the world in search of plants that can cure

By Emily Ford
eford@salisburypost.com
KANNAPOLIS ó Despite modern advances in health and nutrition, the plant kingdom remains largely a mystery.
While we know that plants like fruits and vegetables are good for us when eaten, we don’t know exactly why. The biological activity of chemical substances found in plants is still mostly unexplored.
If researchers can uncover secrets hidden deep inside a plant, identifying bioactive compounds and understanding how they work, they can start to determine which components fight cancer, promote endurance or boost metabolism.
They can begin to understand how plants combat human disease, and then use that knowledge to help millions of people.
Dr. Mary Ann Lila lives to do just that.
“Research is what makes me tick,” she said.
The new director of the North Carolina State University Plants for Human Health Institute at the N.C. Research Campus, Lila has devoted her 25-year career to studying the biologically active properties of plants.
Now, with the unique blend of talent and technology at the Research Campus, scientists will “produce fruits and vegetables that have properties beyond what we have normally bred plants for,” Lila said. “We’ll be looking at plants from a whole different perspective.”
Lila has large, ongoing research projects in Egypt, Central Asia, Oceania, Mexico and soon Bhutan, marking the first scientific partnership between the South Asian kingdom and any United States university.
She co-founded the Global Institute for BioExploration, or GIBEX, a global research and development network.
And she is spearheading an ambitious collaboration at the Research Campus to map the genome of the blueberry, which could lead to new ways to manage disease and a new blueberry plant designed to grow in North Carolina soil.
Dr. Steven Leath, who helped create the academic blueprint for the Research Campus with founder David Murdock, recruited Lila from the University of Illinois.
“I wanted someone with an international reputation who would give instant prestige and credibility to the institute, but who was still active in science,” said Leath, vice president for research for the UNC system. “I felt like we had found the exact right person.”
– – –
At her office in Kannapolis, surrounded by African masks, Central Asian hats and foam fruit, Lila explains why she prefers ugly plants.
She likes to study plants under stress. Wild, native plants growing on the side of volcano or under a hole in the ozone layer.
Plants, she said, “on the edge of survival.”
She’s interested in the theory that says compounds which protect a plant can also protect a human. It’s the idea that plants under stress can help people under the stress stay healthy.
This work has taken Lila to some of the most inhospitable places on earth, but also some of the most beautiful.
In December, she met with government officials and members of the Royal Family in Bhutan.
A joint venture between N.C. State, the University of Illinois and Rutgers University, the visit opened the way for a partnership between Bhutan and GIBEX that could result in new sources of medicine.
Working with scientists and students in developing countries, GIBEX searches native flora for fruit and vegetable extracts that may provide cures for infectious or chronic disease. The discoveries can lead to potential new products to introduce into U.S. markets.
In Uzbekistan, native plants look promising enough to create a small pharmaceutical industry there.
“It’s one of the hottest leads,” Lila said. “We have found quite a few anti-inflammatory compounds that we have no counterpart for.”
– – –
Blueberries have long been dubbed a “superfood,” touted for their powerful antioxidants. The pigment in blueberry skin is considered a chemical warrior against heart disease and cancer.
To better understand how blueberries protect humans who eat them, N.C. State has launched a major collaboration with UNC-Charlotte and the David H. Murdock Research Institute.
Scientists will map the genome of the blueberry for the first time. A genome is an organism’s total genetic make-up.
“Our goal is to identify gene sequences that are associated with positive health effects of blueberries,” said Dr. Ann Loraine of the UNC-Charlotte Bioinformatics Research Center in Kannapolis. “This will make it much easier for breeders to pick the blueberry plants that are going to be the best.”
UNC-Charlotte will manage and interpret massive amounts of data generated as the Murdock Institute, which owns and operates the Core Laboratory, uses world-class equipment to sequence the genome.
Dealing with large-scale genome data sets takes colossal computing power. UNC-Charlotte is installing a $700,000 IBM supercomputer to support research in Kannapolis.
The sequencing portion of the project should take less than two years.
“It’s hard to say, because we don’t know how big the genome is,” said Dr. Will Lee, a consultant working for the Murdock Institute. “Plant genomes can be crazy sometimes.”
Because they will create the first genetic map of the blueberry, it will take longer and cost more, Lee said. Future mapping will rely on the “scaffold” of the blueberry genome created in Kannapolis.
“The first one is very complicated,” he said. “Once you have a scaffold, resequencing is much, much easier.”
Once scientists have the genome sequenced, their work has just begun.
“This could keep many people employed for 20 years,” said Lila, who will use federal grants to fund much of the research.
While they search for traits that make the blueberry nutritious and offer protection from disease, scientists also will identify characteristics that would make blueberries easier to grow in North Carolina.
Working with the Piedmont Research Station near Salisbury, N.C. State will develop a new blueberry variety designed to thrive in the Piedmont. A similar effort is underway for strawberries.
“We’ll look for the genetic basis for why they like certain soil,” Loraine said. “Ultimately, we want to make blueberries a more important part of North Carolina agriculture.”
Farmers are looking for value-added crops, and a blueberry plant designed to grow in clay soil offers a “real opportunity,” Loraine said.
Another N.C. State program, Value-Added & Alternative Agriculture, specializes in educating growers. Dr. Blake Brown’s program serves as a direct connection between researchers and farmers, taking developments from the lab to the farm.
The blueberry project will use berries grown at the Piedmont Research Station by Dr. Jim Ballington, N.C. State small fruits breeder. Dr. Allan Brown, a molecular geneticist in Kannapolis, will help determine which genes are responsible for which traits.
In April and May, scientists will collect berries in Rowan County and begin.
“We’re waiting for the blueberries to bud, and they’re just starting,” Loraine said. “The people in my department are raring to go.”
– – –
At full capacity, the NCSU Plants for Human Health Institute will employ 150 people, including 15 faculty. The institute has a full arsenal of plant breeders, geneticists, phytochemists, a molecular biologist, a plant biochemist and experts in genomics and metabolomics.
Until the Research Campus opened last fall, “no one had put all the pieces together,” Lila said. “No one had everyone under one roof.”
Murdock’s company, Dole Food, and Appalachian State University have research labs in the building as well.
Lila makes frequent trips back to Illinois, where her plants and research mice are still housed. Once greenhouses and a vivarium are built at the Research Campus, she will move her work to Kannapolis.
The parents of two scientists, Lila and her husband live in Kannapolis. It took some arm-twisting to convince her to come to Kannapolis.
She’s glad she did.
“Every single second of the job here is spot-on what I love,” she said. “That’s so rare.”
 

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