Online Databases Provide New Tool for Unlocking the Genetic Secrets in Medicinal Plants

PULLMAN, Wash. – Unlocking the genetic and biochemical secrets of plants used for medicinal purposes could be easier in the future, thanks to new online databases funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences through the American Recovery and Re-investment Act. The three-year projects were funded as part of a $10 million initiative from the National Institutes of Health. 

Papaver somniferum

Why study medicinal plants? Many of the most valued medicines from plants have very complex chemical structures, and are often only found in tiny amount in Nature, sometimes in remote parts of the world and sometimes in endangered plant species. Frequently, far too little is known about how their medicinals are even formed or how this knowledge can be used for humanity’s benefit. Remarkable advances in technology are helping change that.

The work involves two consortia of plant and bioinformatics scientists who are in the process of mapping the genetic makeup of 45 different plant species, many of which are already widely used for their potent medicinals. The work was made possible because of recent revolutionary advances in probing the blueprints of various medicinal plants so that key genetic information can be rapidly accessed.  Their results are being made available worldwide on two online databases: and

Norman G. Lewis, Regents professor of biological chemistry at Washington State University and director of the WSU-led Medicinal Plants/Human Health Consortium, said those blueprints could help future researchers determine the “missing steps” in how medicinal plants produce the substances they do.

“While many of our most highly valued medicinals have known and often quite complex chemical structures, by contrast their biochemical pathways are generally either not known or are incomplete,” he explained. “By using the most modern genetic and bioinformatics approaches to identify the genes, we can begin to solve the mysteries in how these remarkable medicinals are formed”.

Digitalis lanata

Plants have been a traditional source of human medicine worldwide throughout history. For example, snakeroot has been used in India to treat a variety of ailments for at least 3,000 years. While still used today in traditional medicines in many countries around the world, plants also are the basis for some of the most potent modern medicines. Taxol, for example, is one of the most prevalent and powerful anti-cancer treatments in use today; it is derived from the yew tree. Other plants in the two databases include ginseng, foxglove, opium poppy, periwinkle and may apple. Altogether, the scientists are analyzing 45 different medicinal plant species chosen to include the major groups of plant-derived medicines that are currently used to treat conditions and diseases including cancer, infection, Alzheimer’s disease, inborn errors of metabolism, malaria, hypertension and inflammation.

“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, through which the ARRA funds were provided.  “The collaborative effort should greatly contribute to our ability to understand and exploit the rich biochemistry found in plants.”

During the early stages of this project, WSU President Elson Floyd met with Vice President Joe Biden, together with a select group of other university leaders, and noted several of the scientific advances and job creation opportunities that the ARRA funds were providing.

The Medicinal Plants/Human Health Consortium draws scientists from the Danforth Plant Science Center, the National Center for Genomics Resources, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Washington State University.

The second consortium, the Medicinal Plant Consortium includes participants from Michigan State University, Iowa State University, the University of Mississippi, Purdue University, Texas A&M University, the John Innes Institute in Norwich, England, and the University of Kentucky.

The researchers in both consortia represent a broad spectrum of expertise from plant biology and systematics, to analytical and natural products chemistry, to genetics and molecular biology, as well as drug development.