Gene bank conserves potential sources for new crops and new medicines

When it comes to plants, the mountains of North Carolina are among the most biologically diverse in the United States. A unique new research laboratory and seed bank with ties to College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is helping to conserve that diversity and explore how it might be used to develop medicinal products and improve the region’s economy.

Dr. Joe-Ann McCoy serves as the director of the Bent Creek Institute Germplasm Repository and Laboratory, which she began setting up three years ago to become the first comprehensive North American gene bank devoted to native and medicinal plants. The nonprofit institute was started by the UNC system.

McCoy, based at the N.C. Arboretum at Asheville, has been a faculty member with the College’s Department of Horticultural Science. Though her director position was recently transferred to the Bent Creek Germplasm Repository, a subsidiary UNC campus, she will retain ties to N.C. State as an adjunct faculty member.

The repository’s primary focus is conservation, McCoy says. With the help of technicians and volunteers, she is collecting, cataloging and storing germplasm – seeds, mainly – from thousands of plants that live in the plant-rich mountain region. Lichens, algae, spores, fungi and bacteria are also included in the collection.

“From a collection standpoint, this is a very, very special place, because there are more species of plants found in the mountains of North Carolina than in any other area of similar size in North America,” she says. “Also, throughout the last four ice ages, this region was not covered in ice, so as the glaciers retreated, this was the seed source that reseeded the rest of the continent. As a result, this is an optimal spot to develop a gene bank, because a lot of the original source material is here.”

McCoy approaches her work with a sense of urgency, because just as the ice ages altered past plant populations, climate change threatens to bring about radical changes in the regional flora.

“What we are seeing is that many of our growth zones are shifting north, resulting in zone creep. This means that some of the plants that are here now might not be in the future,” she says. “Some plants will make that shift and adjust, but some won’t — for example, in our high-elevation habitats, including rock outcrops and the spruce fir zone, where rare populations are already pushed to the very top of their limits. We may potentially lose these species.

“So from a conservation point of view, we want to collect in those areas as soon as possible and get them conserved in the gene bank,” she says.

McCoy says the repository’s primary focus is conservation.

When McCoy collects plants, she and her colleagues follow stringent sustainable national guidelines. To ensure they don’t deplete wild populations, they don’t remove more than 20 percent of the seeds or 20 percent of the plant population in any place they collect.

While they collect plant matter, they also collect and record lots of data, including the elevation, aspect, slope, global positioning system (GPS) coordinates, directions to the site, associated species, the number of individual plants they find and the number of flowering individuals.

Back at the lab, they press the plant material and dry the seeds, then freeze them at minus 20 degrees Celsius in vacuum-sealed trilaminate packets. The goal is to make the seeds last as long as possible. Some will last only a few years, but others can last hundreds of years, McCoy says.

Every five years, the seeds will be tested to see if they germinate. When the germination rate goes down, it will be time for the scientists to return to the field to recollect.

In addition to leading the Bent Creek Institute’s collection and conservation work, McCoy uses her expertise in analyzing plants’ medicinal properties to collaborate with scientists from around the state who are interested in research related to the development of new botanical products. Such products include nutritional supplements, medicines and more.

“We think it’s a good area to research and could be a potential economic development tool for growers and this region, because dietary supplement sales reached $4.8 billion in the United States alone in 2008, and worldwide they were $60 billion – and growing,” she says. “And it seems to be recession-proof, as sales have continued to increase for the past two years.”

If a researcher is looking for plants to screen for antiviral properties, for example, McCoy’s lab can research the specific chemical structure or activity the researcher is looking for, find native plants that share the chemical family or are phylogentically related to a well-proven product, collect the plants and provide high-quality extracts that can be used in that researcher’s tests.

And thanks to detailed records kept as part of the germplasm repository, the lab can repeat studies in the future using the exact same source material as that used in the initial study. That’s important, McCoy says, because using a different source can lead to very different results when it comes to medicinal properties.

Research she conducted with colleagues at Iowa State University proved this point: With a grant from the National Institutes of Health, the researchers took seeds collected in North Carolina from three populations of the native Prunella vulgaris (commonly called self-healer or heal-all), grew them in identical habitats in Iowa, harvested them, made extracts and then tested the three extracts. They found that the plants collected from different areas in the same region had significantly different levels of the chemical responsible for the plant’s anti-viral properties, McCoy says.

“What we are doing,” she says, “is offering researchers high-quality, well-characterized materials appropriate for their specific area of expertise. We also provide them with the ability to trace back to the original genetic source if studies ever need to be replicated. We then store the seed, along with voucher, DNA specimens, and extracts, as well as high-resolution photographs of the plants, vouchers and seed, which are all available for publication purposes,” McCoy explains. “And most researchers in the state don’t have the capability to do this, but because we’re located in the western portion of the state, we have access to over a million acres for collection.”

“What we are creating here is quite unique. There’s nothing else like it as far as we know,” she says. “And we see a great deal of potential not just for conservation but for health and wellness and for regional economic development.”

—Dee Shore

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