Monday, October 5, 2015

2015 Nobel Prize highlights importance of botanical chemistry

1600 years ago, a Chinese physician wrote in a book called "Emergency Prescriptions Kept Up One's Sleeve", that soaking a plant now known as Artemisia annua  in water, and then drinking the juice, can reduce fever. This text was rediscovered in the second half of the 20th century by a then obscure Chinese pharmacologist, Tu Youyou. Ms Tu was working on a secret project to find a novel cure for malaria. She found that artemisia extract was highly efficient in combating the malaria parasite. Her work led to the development of the drug artemisinin, which is now widely used in malaria treatment in Africa.  Ms. Tu's role in the discovery of artemisinin remained hidden from the West for most of her life. But now at the age of 85, she has been recognized with the 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine for her work
An illustration describing Ms Tu's work displayed during the press conference announcing the winners of the Nobel Medicine Prize. Linked from and The Telegraph: Nobel Prize for Chinese traditional medicine expert who developed malaria cure. Photo: AFP

This reminds us that many of our medicines have their roots in botany. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates described a bitter substance, now known to be salicylic acid, from willow bark that could ease aches and reduce fevers. Other cultures in the ancient Middle East also used willow bark as a medicine, as did Native Americans. Centuries later, we know salicylic acid as the chemical precursor for aspirin (which is acetylsalicylic acid), and salicylic acid itself is a key ingredient in many modern anti-acne face washes.

The Pacific Yew is a conifer found primarily in the Pacific Northwest. Its thin scaly back would probably go unnoticed if not for the fact that it contains a chemical called paclitaxel, or more commonly known as the chemotherapy drug Taxol. Taxol was discovered in the mid 1960s as part of a large-scale program to identify natural products which might be used against cancer. In 1992 Taxol was approved by the FDA for use in fighting breast, ovarian and lung (and a few other) cancers.

And what would life be like without the opium poppy, the source of morphine or codeine. The medicinal (and likely recreational) uses of opium poppy have been known for thousands of years. And the increasingly legal uses of cannabinoids in western medical protocols cannot be ignored.

These are prime examples of how a deep knowledge of botanical diversity and chemistry can lead to incredibly important applications.

Unfortunately, education towards and development of expertise in these fields over the past decades were not a priority for many universities, where plant biology outside of the study of model organisms was looked down upon. At Tel Aviv University we've recognized the importance of botanical pharmacology. As Dean of the Faculty of Life Sciences, together with the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, we have initiated a search for a botanical pharmacologist whose position will be divided between our two Faculties, between plant biology and pharmacology. Such interdisciplinary research is critical for exploiting the medicinal potential hidden in plants.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

My take on feeding the world

A few months ago I was interviewed by Story Preservation Initiative. What started out as a nice interview about What A Plant Knows, developed into a discussion about global food security and the role of genetic engineering in agriculture. The interview was edited into a monologue of over an hour, which you can access here. Below is the part pertaining to feeding the world.

Want the bottomline? (1) Increase yield per water unit; (2) reduce food loss from field to fridge and food waste from fridge to trash; (3) modify our diet; (4) adopt technology.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Hawking Food Security in India

I’ve found myself in many bizarre situations. None though perhaps surpasses what I did last week. I hawked Tel Aviv University programs at an Indian trade-fair aimed at the food industry.

I was the guest of the Confederation of Indian Industries trade show called FOODPRO 2015. I have been interacting with CII for almost two years as co-chair of the India-Israel Forum sub-group on Food Security. I was one of the guest speakers for the conference part of the event. That in itself is not so bizarre – I’ve given talks over the years to diverse audiences. But what was bizarre is that they asked us also to man a booth in the exhibition part of the trade-show. So one of the 250 exhibitors at Chennai’s FOODPRO 2015 was the Manna Program for Food Safety and Security at Tel Aviv University. At both #35, we handed out flyers about our summer program and sang the praises of Tel Aviv University. To our right in booth #36 was CoCo Rain – “100% pure tender coconut water”. To our left in booth # 34 was Chennai Food Testing, a chemical service lab. Across the aisle in booth 112, Kookmate had a large exhibit of industrial cooking machines including an automatic chipati maker. Other booths included spice grinders, chicken pluckers, and sweet coffee machines. Booth H43-A belonged to "Spanker International". We didn't spend much time there.

Maya running our booth.
Obviously, Maya Oren, the Program Director at Manna, in her sleeveless back dress, and me with light brown hair, and our promoting an advanced educational program, stood out among the sari-clad women and tika-adorned men selling ice cream machines, rice makers and automatic mixers. Our stall was frequented by an endless stream of curious visitors, most long past university age, who eagerly snapped pictures (especially of Maya), took home TAU leaflets, and especially, our keyfobs. Many of the conversations bordered on the absurd – “In which part of India Tel Aviv is?”, “What are you selling?”, “Are you interested in puffballs?”. It was like touring around India, while staying in one place. We quickly adopted the head bob, which we found made us more understood.

Without a doubt, most of our time was spent more in promoting Israel awareness than in attracting students. But we also met a group of motivated college students studying entrepreneurship who surrounded us, excited about the possibility of studying in the “start-up” nation. They were at the fair as part of a class on agro innovation. And we met a number of industrialists, who found in Tel Aviv University a novel option to the American universities they had been considering for their children. And we bought spices – 8 different types of curry for $5. I thought of taking home a chipati maker, but it wouldn’t fit in my suitcase.