Reaping a Healthy Harvest: Results Cover Story

The latest issue of Results, published by N.C. State University’s Office of Research, Innovation and Economic Development, features PHHI Director Dr. Mary Ann Lila on the cover. The story by David Hunt does a terrific job capturing the spirit of Lila’s work and the mission of the Plants for Human Health Institute.

The Wonders of Phytochemicals

Lila and a member of her team
Lila and her team of researchers analyze phytochemicals using advanced techniques, such as high-performance liquid chromatography.

Since it was founded five years ago under Lila’s leadership, the Plants for Human Health Institute has worked to unlock the mysteries of phytochemicals, the bioactive agents that give plants their color, flavor, taste and smell. Anthocyanins, for example, are the pigments responsible for the dark skin of the blueberry and the rosy blush of the red apple. Phenolic acids give vanilla and licorice their complex aromas and put the zing in chili peppers.

In fact, Lila explains, plants are composed of “a complex cornucopia of chemicals” numbering in the thousands. Their beauty, it turns out, is more than skin deep. There’s mounting evidence that some phytochemicals have beneficial properties, including the ability to reduce inflammation, prevent obesity, relieve pain and lower the risk for diseases like cancer and stroke.

The field is wide open for research, and the Plants for Human Health Institute has quickly emerged as a global leader — literally. Lila travels around the world, leading teams of graduate students and researchers on bioexplorations to discover and test the healing power of plants. In addition to her work in sub-Saharan Africa, she has ongoing research projects in central Asia, Egypt, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand.

“The sky’s the limit in terms of edible plant material and what it can do for human health,” she says.