Fireweed accessions under evaluation, and close-up of fireweed flowers
Plants have co-existed with the microbial world and environmental pressures such as UV radiation for a very long time. Unlike motile animals, sessile plants cannot defend themselves by moving to ideal settings; instead they chemically synthesize a vast array of defensive molecules, to protect themselves and interact with their environment. These highly diverse and chemically complex metabolites are the source of many of the molecules that we use as medicines, and as preservatives in foods and personal care products. These “natural products” from plants are especially well suited to act as antimicrobials and antioxidants, because that is their biological role in plants. They may have better antimicrobial and antioxidant action than those synthesized in the lab because they are more chemically complicated and diverse than synthetics.
PDF of M.M. Cowan (1999) "Plant Products as Antimicrobial Agents." Clinical Microbiology Reviews 12(4):564-582.
Image from YouTube video by Amanda C. Martin
Because of this, the company Johnson & Johnson, driven by market pressure, has recently pledged to replace synthetic materials with natural products in their line of baby products, with the expectations to expand to additional products. Minnesota native plants have been shown to be a highly promising source of untapped biologically active molecules. Extracts from these plants can be developed into safer, ecologically-conscious, consumer-supported preservatives to replace petroleum derivatives, formaldehyde donors, and parabens in personal care, cosmetic and packaged food products.
The past decade has seen increasing interest in the use of perennial crops. Biologically active natural products from native Minnesota plants are the type of marketable commercial commodity that can add value to a biomass crop. This development of plants native to Minnesota as crop species allows them to be incorporated into multifunctional agricultural landscapes. Many Minnesota native plants can be grown on steep slopes, river banks, and other marginal land not suitable for row crop production. There are many species that could co-exist with and enhance traditional row crops, such as corn and soybean, by attracting pollinators, beneficial insects, and increasing macro level biodiversity to decrease pressure from pests and diseases. These benefits specific to agricultural production would be in addition to the overall ecosystem services that the perennial plants would provide simply by being present on the landscape. Some of these ecosystem services include: carbon sequestration, erosion control, wildlife habitat, water filtration and stabilization, and many more.
There is a growing interest in environmentally-conscience products among consumers world-wide, as seen in the strong marketability of products branded “green”, “natural”, and “local”. Companies are being pressured by consumers to use more environmentally conscious ingredients in their products; however, the basic research needed to fulfill demand for these ingredients is incomplete. Using Minnesota native plants extracts in products easily extends this highly profitable branding to them. Aveda, a high end cosmetic company headquartered in Blaine, MN, is currently interested in being able to source these natural preservatives from Minnesota for use in their products. Their tagline, to unite “the art and science of pure flower and plant essences” drives their goal to replace all synthetic and petroleum based materials with natural products. Although they are currently based in Minnesota, many of their natural products are sourced from faraway places such as the Nepal and India. This natural products outsourcing is taking away potential income from our local economy, simply because we have not sufficiently invested local resources towards developing native Minnesota plants for these growing economic opportunities.
Image from YouTube video by Amanda C. Martin
The White Earth Indian Nation located in Minnesota has an interest in transitioning much of the land on their reservation from row cropping back to the traditional prairie in order to better fulfill the spiritual, nutritional, and environmental goals of the tribe. If high value natural products were harvested from these perennial plantings the result would be tangible benefits for our Minnesota economy as well as the environment and society, within the White Earth community and as a whole.
The University of Minnesota (U of MN) is partnering with Aveda and the White Earth Nation to develop native Minnesota plant resources for use as natural preservatives in personal care and cosmetic products. Much of the research is being performed in Dr. Adrian Hegeman’s plant metabolomics laboratory located on the Saint Paul campus of the UMN. This research mainly involves the extraction, isolation, and structural elucidation of compounds from plant extracts that are found to be active in bioassays testing preservative activity. The U of MN is well equipped with state of the art instrumentation such as mass and nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometry and biological assay facilities to perform this research.
Instrumentation at the U of MN for extraction and analysis of native plant compounds
Nurturing Young Talent
Not only is this instrumentation essential to getting the work done, but it also attracts young talent. A Fulbright Scholar from Bordeaux, France, has recently joined the project as a post-doctoral researcher and is helping to train a National Science Foundation graduate student fellow and others at both the U of M and at Aveda R&D. It is essential that the state recognizes that a meaningful investment in Minnesota native plants as potential crops will act to continually recruit highly talented researchers and industrial collaborations.
These scientists at the undergraduate, graduate, and post-doc level will perform research that will ultimately enhance our local economy while simultaneously building a highly skilled workforce for the future, a workforce that is not only technically proficient, but also holistically educated and prepared to lead us into a sustainable future both for our environment and our economy.
In order for natural products from Minnesota native plants to be developed as marketable commercial commodities large scale screening, isolation, and product testing efforts need to be expanded. Specifically, there are an ever increasing number of important biological targets with relevance to multiple industries in Minnesota and elsewhere, which require additional human and monetary resources to find naturally derived molecules for diverse purposes. Currently, an extensive library of diverse plant material is being sourced from different locations around the state. This library is being developed for high-throughput testing against a vast array of highly relevant targets. Additionally, resources must be made available to enable preliminary activities for development of plant germplasm for an agricultural setting such as pilot plantings to perform field test for harvest optimization and ecotype evaluation.
Most importantly, we need to be able to continue to attract highly qualified students and post-doctoral researchers to train and carry out this work. Because several aspects of the research is labor intensive, it requires a solid foundation of scientists working together in order to bring a potentially highly profitable product to the market. This product is of high impact since it results from activities that can enhance both the local economy and the environment. These benefits range from the production of perennial native plants on Minnesota farms and otherwise unusable land, to the final product by local companies. U of MN is poised to be in the vanguard of this innovative field, where for the first time there is both market pressure and interest from large companies to use the research on these plants, many of which have never been looked at for this purpose, to carry products to market. The production of Minnesota native plants for use in the production of economically important natural products is an exciting and unique opportunity that, with state support, will lead to a profitable and sustainable future for our economy and our environment.
Kate Freund, Research Assistant, Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics
Adrian Hegeman, Associate Professor, Department of Horticultural Science and Department of Plant Biology
Amanda Martin, Graduate Student, Department of Plant Biology
Alison Pawlus, AVEDA Corporation
Katherine Sammons, Research Assistant, Department of Horticultural Science
Don Wyse, Professor, Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics