8 October 2012
Today's drugs might become even more effective overnight - by pairing them with compounds from plants.
Researchers at the US Department of Agriculture looked at the effects of pairing conventional antifungal medicines with compounds such as thymol, a compound produced by thyme plants.
The team focused on different species of Aspergillus mould, which can infect corn, cotton, pistachios, almonds and other crops, and can produce aflatoxin, a natural carcinogen. Aflatoxin-contaminated crops must be identified and removed from the processing stream, at times resulting in large economic losses. However, the US researchers have built up a collection of plant-based compounds targeting one particular Aspergillus species, A. flavus, either killing it or preventing it from producing aflatoxin.
A. flavus and two of its relatives, A. fumigatus and A. terreus, may impact the health of immunocompromised individuals exposed to the fungus in moldy homes. In a 2010 article in Fungal Biology, the team reported that thymol, when used in laboratory tests with two systemic antifungal medications, inhibited growth of these fungi at much lower-than-normal doses of the drugs.
Using plant-derived compounds to treat fungal infections is not a new idea, nor is that of pairing the compounds with antifungal medicines. But the team's studies have explored some apparently unique pairs, and have provided some of the newest, most detailed information about the mechanisms likely responsible for the impact of powerful combinations of drugs and natural plant compounds.
Questions to ask yourself
- Why do plants produce compounds, such as thymol, with antifungal properties? What are the advantages for the plant?
- Where in the plant are these compounds produced?
- How does plant breeding effect levels of active compounds in herbs and other plants?
- Medical matters: investigating antimicrobials (Student project started, suitable for extended projects or Advanced Higher investigations)
- Plants as chemical factories (Science club activity)