U group aims to economically enable certain plants

University, Aveda Corporation and a White Earth community college are seeking economic value in plants that help the ecosystem.

In a University of Minnesota plant pathology lab on the St. Paul campus, Dmitriy Lis picked a Petri dish out of the plastic tub on the bench top and held it up, displaying one result of the organic seed treatment research heâÄôs been doing over the past year. The gelatinous media in the dish was infused with an extract made from leaves of staghorn sumac , a large shrub, which Lis and graduate student Peter Gillitzer collected last summer. After replacing a small chunk of the gel with a pathogen thatâÄôs harmful to soybean plants, Lis, an applied plant science and biochemistry senior, monitored it to see whether the plant extract could ward off the pathogen. If it works, organic soybean growers who canâÄôt use existing commercial chemical treatments could use it, which means an economic incentive to grow the plant. Lis and Gillitzer work in agronomy and plant genetics professor Don WyseâÄôs lab, and they and other researchers have so far tested about 750 different plant parts from more than 500 perennial species for properties that might be commercially useful. TheyâÄôre already working with Aveda Corporation, which is interested in plant-based preservatives for cosmetics like lotions and shampoos. Ultimately, WyseâÄôs lab aims to find economic value in woodland and prairie plants that help the ecosystem by doing things like reducing erosion, sequestering carbon and helping manage floodwaters. In the plant pathogen lab, Lis found that for some pathogens, including a fungus that causes sudden death syndrome in soybeans, sumac extract worked as well or better than a commercial chemical seed treatment âÄî at least in the Petri dish. Gillitzer thinks thatâÄôs fascinating. âÄúThere is this commercial control that theyâÄôre currently using for seed treatments, and the amazing thing is that thatâÄôs years of development, itâÄôs a proprietary chemical, and here we took this from a ditch in Chisago County , and theyâÄôre performing similarly,âÄù he said. Researchers need to do more testing, like trying the extract on actual soybean seeds, to see if they can really protect the plant from disease as well as existing treatments. But Wyse said itâÄôs possible that soybean growers could be using these natural products in two or three years.

Plant-based preservatives

Before Lis started testing the extracts as seed treatments, he, Gillitzer and a previous researcher had been doing similar experiments to find out which plants might contain chemicals that can ward off bacteria, fungi and oxidation. The cosmetics industry, including Aveda Corporation , relies on preservatives to prevent microbes from invading water-based products like shampoos and lotions. The companyâÄôs mission includes using naturally derived or sustainable materials, but plant-based preservatives are hard to come by, said Aveda senior research scientist Tim Kapsner. So heâÄôs evaluating whether any of the promising plant extracts in WyseâÄôs lab could work as preservatives in AvedaâÄôs products. But itâÄôs a long road from Petri dish to shampoo bottle, and itâÄôll be years before these extracts could show up in AvedaâÄôs products. âÄúYou can do tests just on the extract to see that it has antimicrobial effect, but then you have to see if that translates into functioning as a preservative in the finished product,âÄù Kapsner said. He couldnâÄôt give specifics about what AvedaâÄôs testing has turned up so far, but did say some of their early testing has confirmed the UniversityâÄôs finding that some of the extracts have promise as antimicrobials. âÄúWeâÄôve confirmed some of their findings in early testing, and we think itâÄôs worthwhile to keep working on this area,âÄù he said. Commercial collaborators are key to completing the loop between finding useful natural products and creating what Wyse calls a multi-functional landscape, one thatâÄôs good for the ecosystem and provides an economic return for the landowner.

Marriage of traditional plant knowledge, Western science

GillitzerâÄôs work is funded by a White Earth Tribal and Community College research grant. Steve Dahlberg , director of extension at the Mahnomen college, said itâÄôs always looking for ways to use indigenous plants to create something of value to people. Its role in this project was to help identify potentially useful plants. âÄúWeâÄôve got the knowledge of plants and the knowledge of traditional medicinal uses for them,âÄù he said. âÄúSo itâÄôs just a matter of âĦ saying if something was traditionally used as a pain reliever, it might have anti-inflammatory properties.âÄù And as Aveda considers extracts it might pursue, Dahlberg said the college will help them consider factors like plant abundance and sensitivity to over harvesting. If they were going to actually try to develop a business around a plant, he said, theyâÄôd want to grow it as a crop rather than harvesting it in the wild. And that could be economically helpful for the Mahnomen area, about 260 miles northwest of Minneapolis. âÄúThere arenâÄôt many jobs around here,âÄù he said. Fostering microenterprises is a way to remedy that, he said, and one approach is to use the areaâÄôs natural resources, besides cutting wood for paper, a common use of area-forests that returns little value relative to the damage it does, he said.

âÄòA greater interestâÄô

When he and his research partners started working on natural products about eight years ago, Wyse said there wasnâÄôt a lot of interest in that kind of research. But now, with a greater focus on climate change and carbon sequestering, people are more interested in getting perennials into the landscape, and companies are seeking renewable replacements for petroleum. âÄúSo we now see a greater interest in both ends of our spectrum,âÄù he said, and based on that âÄúI think weâÄôll see a greater federal investment in these ideas.âÄù