Nepenthes × ventrata
Home » Coeliacs, snakebites and the perils of apricots…

Coeliacs, snakebites and the perils of apricots…

Nigel Chaffey continues his exploration of the unexpected health benefits of some foods.

Continuing with the 2017 Kew’s State of the World’s Plants report which documents medicinal uses for a mere 7.6 % (28,187 out of an estimated 369,400 species of flowering plants (p. 9), here’s some more news of potentially life-changing, plant-derived pharmaceutical possibilities…

Nepenthes × ventrata
Nepenthes × ventrata. Photo: François de Dijon / Wikipedia

Help with a human digestion problem – coeliac diseasecomes from an unexpected angle, a botanic with its own digestion-related physiology, the pitcher plant Nepenthes. The symptoms of coeliac disease result from the body’s inability to fully digest gluten protein in certain cereal products. Analysis of the digestive protein complement of Nepenthes × ventrata by Linda Lee et al. identified an enzyme – neprosin, a prolyl endoprotease – that could digest gluten. A demonstration that this discovery could bring some relief to human coeliac sufferers comes from work by Martial Rey et al. with mice. Which raises the question of how many other interesting enzymes, that work in low pH environments such as the human stomach, carnivorous plants may contain. Or organisms of otherwise interesting biochemistry such as fungi (e.g. these papers). But, rather than search for natural ‘coelical cures’, why not intelligently design them? With the aid of the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technology, Susana Sánchez-León et al. have produced low-gluten, non-transgenic wheat plants – ‘bread wheat’ and durum wheat’. Although what they created is low in gluten rather than gluten-free it does give a glimpse into the brave new world of future possibilities that this new CRISPR technology might offer in the quest for ‘designer foods’ to cope with a variety of digestively-compromised people.

Chrysopelea ornata or "the golden tree snake.
Chrysopelea ornata or “the golden tree snake”. Photo: Conrad Baetsle

Finally, in this ‘plants are good for people’ catalogue, there is a consideration of ‘snake bite plants’. A review of plants used indigenously to treat snake bites in Central America by Peter Giovannini and Melanie-Jayne Howes identified 208 flowering plant species exploited in this capacity. However, although traditionally used in this way, the duo concluded that ‘there is a lack of clinical research to evaluate their efficacy and safety.’ This underlines the need to undertake more research into the medicinal/pharmaceutical potential of the planet’s plant profusion. And, by way of a cautionary tale about humans using plants as medicines in an unorganised way…

Apricot painting
The ‘Turkey’ apricot, a hand-coloured engraving after a drawing by Augusta Innes Withers (1792-1869), from the first volume of John Lindley’s Pomological Magazine (1827-1828). With thanks to BernardM / Wikipedia

…we highlight the case of an otherwise healthy 67-year-old man who gave himself cyanide poisoning by self-prescribing a supposedly cancer-preventing concoction based on kernels of apricots [Prunus armeniaca presumably, but not specified by scientific name in the journal article…]. Plants, good for what ails you – if used wisely (!). Just so.

Nigel Chaffey

I am a Botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that international plant science journal for almost 10 years. As a freelance plant science communicator I continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience at Plant Cuttings [] (and formerly at Botany One []). In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. I'm happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

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