Scouting for natural alternatives

Safed Moosli
Safed Moosli samples

Aphrodisiac properties of the Indian herb Safed Moosli are widely known. Now we know that this miracle herb may also prevent cancer. Nineteen compounds have been identified in it, some of which are known to possess these properties.

We knew that our age old neem is a source for both oil and Azadirachtin extract. Neem oil can produce soap, Azadirachtin extract can produce insecticides. Sizeable populations of neem were earlier harvested by the industry for both these products leading to wastage when adequate amounts of the desired variety were not found.

Places from where plants sample were collected

Now we know that for neem oil, one has to harvest neem from Rajasthan, while for Azadirachtin one has to explore South India. A neem population that is high in oil content will be low in Azadirachtin content.

Such analysis of the chemical components of different populations of medicinal plants was carried out as part of the project on chemical characterization of significant medicinal plants from different parts of India, undertaken by TERI.

The project consisted of scouting for useful bio-molecules in particular medicinal plants by analysing their chemical composition. It also entailed identification of the difference in the chemical constitution of samples of the plants collected from different locations.

Scientist collecting samples from the field
Scientist collecting samples from the field

A team of scientists travelled to different parts of India and collected samples of these plants over 3 years.

Back in the laboratory, they got extracts from these plants and studied the extract with the help of technologies such as gas chromatography (GC) and high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC). The technology yielded graphs where chemical compounds and their amount in the extract were identified by carefully observing peaks in the graph.

Besides safed moosli and neem, extracts of ashwagandha, jatropha, and pongamia, have also been analysed.

The objective was to conserve the biodiversity of these valuable resources while exploiting them in a sustainable manner for the useful compounds they contain.

This requires that plants are harvested from the right places for the compound that is required and the right parts of the plants are used. For example, in some cases, compounds can be extracted from the leaves instead of the roots without permanently destroying the plant.

In certain cases, important plants can be micro-propagated using tissue culture so that their stock does not exhaust.

The chemical characterization, which is being carried out by Department of Biotechnology, Department of Science and Technology, Indo-French Center, Indo-FRG, and National Oilseeds & Vegetable Oils Development Board (NOVODB) involves isolating and purifying the key compound present in the species, developing laboratory methods of isolating the chemical compounds, and finding their activity.

Sponsor(s): Department of Biotechnology, Department of Science and Technology, Indo-French Center, Indo-FRG, National Oilseeds & Vegetable Oils Development Board (NOVODB)
Duration: 3 years
  • Isolation and purification of key compounds present in the plant species
  • Development of laboratory methods for chemical profiling of the plant species
  • Identification of ecotypes/chemotypes
  • Over 2000 accessions of Jatropha curcas from various national institutes analysed for their oil content and fatty acid at TERI
  • 300 accessions having high oil content (more than 35% seed oil content) have been identified

Chrophytum species (Safed moosli)

  • 19 new compounds isolated, some of which showed anti-cancer and insecticidal properties
  • Methods developed for identification of species

Witheria (Ashwagandha)

  • Chemical diversity of 162 populations were studied to research the variability in the active principle contributing to commercially beneficial biological activity.
  • Development of sustainable bioresource harvesting practices by identifying optimal harvest growth stage

Study helped in identification of right locations for neem cultivation for harvesting of the Azadirachtin compound with pesticidal activity by analysing 1500 seed samples from various parts of the country.

Ashwagandha plants
Posted on: 5 October 2010  |   Project status: Completed