N.C. State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute (PHHI), located at the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis, is hosting two visiting scholars from Bhutan this month as part of an international partnership that promotes environmental conservation and the discovery of health-beneficial plant compounds. The Bhutanese scientists, Chencho Dorji and Mani Prasad Nirola, are conducting research with PHHI director Dr. Mary Ann Lila and her team from July 9 through July 25.
Dorji and Nirola are part of Bhutan’s National Biodiversity Centre (NBC), a program that promotes the conservation and sustainable use of the country’s diverse biological resources like plants and animals. Bhutan, a small country of roughly 700,000 people located in South Asia east of Nepal, places great emphasis on conservation efforts and responsible interactions between humans and nature. The Bhutanese scientists are in the process of starting research programs and setting up laboratory space at NBC, but lack experience with the required lab equipment.
Working hand-in-hand with Lila, an internationally-renowned scientist, and other leading researchers in PHHI’s labs, Dorji and Nirola are gaining firsthand experience with the state-of-the-art equipment. The training is an essential step in designing their own labs and research programs while forging relationships with international research organizations like PHHI.
According to Josh Kellogg, a PHHI grad student in Lila’s lab overseeing much of the visiting scientists’ daily activities, their initial research goals include the extraction of potentially medicinal compounds from plants.
“They [Dorji and Nirola] are learning how to go through the process of plant extraction, the gathering of raw material from inside the plants,” said Kellogg. “They are learning which solvents work best to extract certain compounds, how the lab instruments works, different protocols that can be used for extractions and using advanced techniques to quickly and qualitatively identify extracts. All of this will be turned into a cohesive research lab when they return to Bhutan.”
It’s all part of a larger field of study called “bioexploration.” Bioexploration is the search for new compounds in plants, including fruits and vegetables, that are beneficial to human health. Compounds in blueberries called anthocyanins, for example, provide cancer-fighting benefits when consumed. Identifying these plant compounds and understanding how they work is a critical component in the Bhutanese scientists’ research and a primary focus of Lila’s lab.
Climbing the Mountain
Dorji and Nirola’s visit to the N.C. Research Campus has been four years in the making, since Lila traveled to South Asia in 2008 to pursue a vision of scientific collaboration that had never been undertaken in Bhutan. She met with representatives from the Institute of Traditional Medicine Services, the National Biodiversity Centre and the Royal Government of Bhutan, including the prince, to propose a first-of-its-kind partnership between Western science and Bhutanese traditionalism.
The resulting arrangement granted American plant scientists access to Bhutan’s rich biological resources under the condition that the intellectual property they helped create would remain at home in Bhutan. In return, Bhutan’s budding conservation research programs could tap into established American scientific resources to learn and grow at an accelerated rate.
“The premise of the project is that we’re engaging in bioexploration, which involves providing scientific resources to a developing country rather than taking them away,” said Lila. “We supply all of the equipment necessary to research native plants for health beneficial compounds, conduct scientific trials with locals to educate them on the processes and then leave the supplies and intellectual ownership of our discoveries with the Bhutanese people.”
The partnership marks the first time the Institute has welcomed scientists from Bhutan, but has the potential to become a long and fruitful relationship, according to Lila.
From Tradition to Technology
Nestled high in the Himalayas between global economic powers India and China, Bhutan is an economically-modest country steeped in agricultural tradition and rich in biodiversity. With more than 70 percent of the population dependent on agriculture for their livelihood, agro-biodiversity is the backbone of the national economy, according to the Bhutan Ministry of Agriculture and Forests.
Bhutan has always taken strong steps to conserve biodiversity. In 1974, Bhutan put into place a conservation policy requiring the country to maintain at least 60 percent of its land as forest cover at all times. The country’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forests reported that the country was roughly 73 percent forest with about 7,000 species of plants, 770 species of birds and 167 species of mammals in 2006.
A people known as much for their loyalty to tradition as their conservation efforts, the Bhutanese have relied on “traditional knowledge” of plants and food crops for centuries. Traditional knowledge draws on indigenous practices regarding the uses and characteristics of plants and animals. But times are changing.
According to the World Conservation Union, one in every eight plants in the world is threatened by extinction, a statistic not lost on the Bhutanese.
The National Biodiversity Centre reports that genetic erosion has become rampant in Bhutan as farming practices switch from traditional systems to market-oriented cash crops. Genetic erosion is further spurred by urbanization, habitat loss, changes in food habits and a shortage of labor.
Science offers an opportunity to preserve traditions while embracing technology and the future, according to Lila.
“Traditional healers in Bhutan may know that a certain plant helps human health in a certain way, but science can identify why and how,” said Lila. “Our partnership aims to target and leverage beneficial plant compounds, provide credibility and scientific documentation for Bhutan’s native plants, and help them establish their own research programs to continue this good work for future generations.”
About Plants for Human Health Institute
The N.C. State University Plants for Human Health Institute is part of the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis. It consists of Research and N.C. Cooperative Extension Service components. The campus is a public-private venture including eight universities, the David H. Murdock Research Institute (DHMRI) and corporate entities that collaborate to advance the fields of nutrition and health. Learn more at https://plantsforhumanhealth.ncsu.edu.
About the National Biodiversity Centre of Bhutan
The National Biodiversity Centre, located in Serbithang, Bhutan, promotes the conservation and sustainable use of the country’s diverse biological resources like plants and animals. The Centre is one part of a comprehensive conservation network in Bhutan that was established in 2005 with the addition of the Royal Botanical Garden, an educational and recreational resource for the public; the National Herbarium, which houses traditional plant specimens for research and preservation; and the Royal Bhutan Gene Bank, an archive of important native seeds created to protect genetic resources and maintain food security.
Writer: Justin Moore