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Scientists identify Asian tree that 'cures 1,000 diseases'

Tongkat Ali, the tree that "cures 1,000 diseases."
Tongkat Ali, the tree that "cures 1,000 diseases."

Genetic tools developed by MIT and Malaysian researchers will help identify and preserve a Southeast Asian tree containing a substance that inhibits viruses and boosts fertility. The work is reported in the March 2003 issue of Plant Physiology.

Compounds extracted from the roots of the tree may lead to useful new drugs. New genetic tools for studying the trees and other tropical plants were developed by researchers at MIT and the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM).

Working under the Malaysia-MIT Biotechnology Partnership Program supported by the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment of Malaysia, the researchers created a technique that genetically fingerprints a tree known in Malaysia as Tongkat Ali.

Root extracts of Tongkat Ali are used widely in Southeast Asia as a dietary supplement for treating a variety of ailments. The Vietnamese name of the tree indicates that it "cures 1,000 diseases." The extracts have reported aphrodisiac properties and have been shown to boost fertility in laboratory animals.

To preserve and eventually engineer useful traits in medicinal plants and maintain genetic diversity, as well as to identify medicinal plants, the research teams developed genetic tools known as single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs (pronounced "snips").

SNPs are small changes in the genetic makeup of individual plants. By taking snapshots of which plants possess which SNPs, researchers are able to distinguish plants from very different genetic backgrounds. This allows researchers to maintain populations of plants that represent as much genetic diversity as possible.

Researchers also can determine whether individual SNPs in a plant can predict whether chemical components of that plant will have particularly potent medicinal properties. This information will be useful for breeding plants that can then be used to manufacture nutritional supplements and pharmaceuticals derived from Tongkat Ali.

Asiah binti Osman, a FRIM research scientist working in the lab of MIT Professor of Biology David E. Housman, and research scientist Philip A. Lessard in Professor of Biology Anthony J. Sinskey's lab developed the SNP technology.

"The SNPs will be used to survey natural populations of Tongkat Ali, allowing us to identify the best possible plant material," Lessard said. "This plant material will then be used to establish biotechnology manufacturing operations and supply raw material for extracting medicinal compounds."

The Malaysia-MIT Biotechnology Partnership Program, directed at MIT by ChoKyun Rha, professor of biomaterials science and engineering, is a multiyear collaboration aimed at developing the biotechnology industry in Malaysia.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 9, 2003.

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