Plant power: summer research on traditional medicine

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Colgate students are sharing their experiences conducting research with faculty members on campus and in the field. This post is by Peter Juviler ’15, Mae Staples ’15, and Kelly French ’15, who are being advised by Frank Frey, associate professor of biology and environmental studies.

For centuries, the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) people have used plants to treat a variety of physical ailments. We are studying those plants that are native to New York State — specifically their ability to kill certain human-infecting bacteria.

The native people’s knowledge of traditional medicine has been passed down through generations and is entwined with their spiritual view of the world.

In our initial research, we found primary source accounts of medicinal plant usage. From these accounts, we have chosen a group of plants regarded as the most powerful by the healers themselves. These plants are said to have successfully treated what appear to be bacteria-related illnesses, including fever, earaches, and coughs (but some were also used for witchcraft, as “blood remedies,” and as general panaceas).

Because human-infecting bacteria continually develop resistance to modern antibiotics, it could be of great use to identify traditional Haudenosaunee medicinal plants that possess the ability to kill bacteria.

We start by picking leaves from the plants that we have grown in the greenhouse. We dry them, grind them to a powder, and make a sort of “plant tea” by heating and stirring our dried plant in water.

We then use a few different screening methods to find out whether the chemicals extracted from a plant actually kill bacteria. In one such method, we put different strengths of extract in small wells with bacteria, then we grow the bacteria overnight in these wells to see if any is killed, and at which strengths. So far, plants that we have found to kill bacteria in some capacity include winged loosestrife, Solomon’s plume, and Culver’s root.

We have been testing our plants on four different kinds of bacteria, and eventually we will move past leaves to other plant parts like stems or roots. We also plan to use other liquids to make our plant extracts, such as alcohols, in order to bring out plant compounds that may not be retrievable using water alone.

In 2010, Professor Frey published a paper in which he and Ryan Meyers ’10 investigated a set of Haudenosaunee medicinal plants in a similar manner. Our project was formulated in conjunction with Professor Frey, and it is based on his previous work, though we have chosen different plants and a wider variety of solvents.

Ultimately, we hope to take our project a step further by using molecular analysis tools to isolate and identify the specific compounds within each plant that produce the observed antibacterial effects.

Every day we learn new things about the properties of the plants we study. It has been especially enjoyable to take afternoons outside to pick plants around campus and in the neighboring area.

Our project will run through the fall and into the spring of 2015, as all three of us will be continuing to explore medicinal plants with Professor Frey as our capstone research projects for the biology major.

After Colgate, Kelly plans to continue with biological sciences research involving marine biology and aquatic plants, Mae would like to conduct biomedical research, and Peter plans to enter the health care field.