Science and Technology

Roots, shoots, genes

Team Quantum | Updated on September 12, 2021

IISER is sequencing the genomes of medicinal plants to know how they heal

We know that genome sequencing, or the identification of the sequence of genes in a person’s DNA, leads to useful results such as discovery of drugs.

For some years now, researchers have been sequencing the genomes of plant varieties to better understand their traits. According to a study, there are about 391,000 land plant and 8,000 algal species in the world. Barely a thousand have been genome-sequenced.

Now a team at the Indian Institute of Science Engineering Research (IISER), Bhopal, has been mapping the genomes of medicinal plants found in India, such as ginger, turmeric, aloe vera and giloy.

Plants have multiple medicinal properties because of the presence of ‘secondary metabolites’. Metabolites are small molecules and the intermediate products of metabolism that play important roles in living organisms.

Plant secondary metabolites are compounds of diverse structures and serve as defence against bacteria, fungi, amoebae, plants, insects, and herbivorous animals; as agents of symbiosis between microbes and plants, nematodes, insects, and higher animals; and as pollinators. They are also used in the signalling pathways. Thus, metabolites are useful fuels, medicines, cosmetics, food supplement, compounds and find a range of applications in agriculture, ecology and healthcare. There have been numerous researches based on the pathways and chemical structures of metabolites.

Understanding the genome sequence can lead to producing more of the useful metabolites. The research is significant because it helps scientists understand which genes are responsible for which metabolites.

The unavailability of genome sequence hindered the study of the genomic basis of the medicinal properties of plants. Thus, the genome sequence of giloy could be a breakthrough as a potential future therapeutic agent for diseases like Covid.

Giloy’s anti-microbial activity is used in skin diseases, urinary tract infection, and dental plaque, among others. It is also found to reduce the clinical symptoms in HIV-positive patients; and its antioxidant activity has anti-cancer and chemo-protective properties. Giloy extracts are found to be potential candidates in treating various cancers like brain tumour, breast cancer, and oral cancer, as well.

The availability of giloy genome will help link its genomic and medicinal properties, says Dr Vineet Sharma, the leader of the research team.

A compound from giloy was reported to target the two proteases (enzymes that break down proteins and peptides) — Mpro and spike— of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, says a press release from IISER. Treatment with giloy extract modulates the various pathways of the immune system for improved immunity.

Sharma’s team has also sequenced the genome of aloe vera and identified the molecular basis of its medicinal and drought-tolerance capabilities.

Ayurvedic treatment depends on medicinal extracts from this plant, which is also widely used in pharmacological applications and cosmetics, with a global market worth of $1.6 billion.

Published on September 12, 2021

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