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Texas A&M University
News Release
Thursday, December 15, 2011

Texas A&M Biologists Shedding New Light On Medicinal Benefits Of Plants

COLLEGE STATION — Scientists at Texas A&M University, together with colleagues at seven other institutions around the country and the world, have developed new resources poised to unlock yet another door in the hidden garden of medicinal compounds found in plants. 

Professor Thomas D. McKnight and colleagues in the Texas A&M Department of Biology are participating in the Medicinal Plant Consortium (MPC), led by Joe Chappell, professor of plant biochemistry in the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture. This initiative is funded through a $6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study how plants produce pharmaceutically useful chemicals. Among the major outcomes from this project are extensive databases detailing the genes and metabolic chemicals found in 14 medically important but difficult-to-study plants.

"Our major goal in this project is to capture the genetic blueprints of medicinal plants for the advancement of drug discovery and development," said Chappell, project coordinator for the MPC. "Most people are familiar with the natural products we derive from plants," Chappell added. "These include the delightful fragrances that go into perfumes, soaps, household cleaning products and more. Just as the sensory properties of plants interact with and trigger your sense of smell, plants' natural compounds can target and cause a reaction within your body. This gives them tremendous pharmaceutical potential."

Some well-known medicines have come from plants. For instance, the foxglove plant gives us the cardiac muscle stimulant digoxin, and the periwinkle plant offers a source for the widely used chemotherapy drugs vincristine and vinblastine. These and many other medicinal plants, often commonly found in household gardens and flower boxes, represent cornucopias of compounds ripe for discovering and developing diverse medicinal applications.

Work in the McKnight laboratory at Texas A&M focused on Camptotheca acuminata, a Chinese tree that produces camptothecin, the basis of several new anti-cancer drugs. “Four different laboratories at Texas A&M worked on the biosynthesis of camptothecin in the 1990s, but the work was eventually halted by a lack of technological tools to go further,” explained McKnight, who serves as associate head of Texas A&M Biology. “The detailed characterization of the genes and chemicals in this plant made available by the MPC will allow researchers around the world to make rapid progress once again.”

The MPC project includes laboratories from Michigan State University, Iowa State University, the University of Mississippi, Purdue University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the John Innes Centre in Norwich, England, in addition to those from Kentucky and Texas A&M. These research groups represent a broad spectrum of expertise, ranging from plant biology and systematics to analytical chemistry, genetics and molecular biology, and drug development from natural products. 

Dean DellaPenna, professor of biochemistry at Michigan State and MPC co-project coordinator, said, "Thanks to the funding received for these projects, the talents and skills of experts from all of these institutions have been brought together with the goal of forging a new model in drug discovery."

To develop the resources, the researchers studied the genes and chemical composition of 14 plants known for their medicinal properties or compounds with biological activity. These included plants such as foxglove, ginseng, periwinkle, and other less well-known species. Altogether, these efforts are now providing a rich toolbox for researchers to discover the means for how nature's chemical diversity is created, thus empowering efforts to uncover new drug candidates and increase the efficacy of existing ones.

"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, which funded the research. "The collaborative effort should greatly contribute to our ability to understand and exploit the rich biochemistry found in plants." 

More information about the MPC and the resources provided are available at the following websites: or

To learn more about McKnight and his research at Texas A&M, visit

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