Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Medicinal plants thrive in biodiversity hotspots


With their rich repertoire of anti-infective substances, medicinal plants have always been key in the human fight to survive pathogens and parasites. This is why the search for herbal drugs with novel structures and effects is still one of the great challenges of natural product research today. Scientists from Leipzig University (UL), the Leibniz Institute of Plant Biochemistry (IPB) and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) have now shown a way to considerably simplify this search for bioactive natural compounds using data analyses on the phylogenetic relationships, spatial distribution and secondary metabolites of plants.

Their new approach makes it possible to predict which groups of plants and which geographical areas are likely to have a particularly high density of species with medicinal effects. This could pave the way for a more targeted search for new medicinal plants in the future.

Species-rich rainforests of Mount Halimun Salak National Park, Java, Indonesia.

Alexandra Muellner-Riehl

Over 70 per cent of all antibiotics currently in use originate from natural substances obtained from plants, fungi, bacteria and marine organisms. In the battle against infectious diseases, humans are particularly dependent on new drugs from natural sources, as pathogens are constantly changing and producing new dangerous strains. At the same time, we have not exhausted our natural resources.

In the plant kingdom alone, only about ten per cent of all vascular plants have so far been screened for suitable active compounds. There are currently about 250,000 structures of natural products stored in scientific databases, with an estimated total of ca. 500,000 in plants alone.

So far, however, researchers have not systematically tested the entire plant kingdom; instead, they have conducted isolated searches for drugs, partly in plants with known medicinal properties, and partly in preferred species or geographical regions, or depending on the type and sensitivity of the detection methods used.

Moreover, the knowledge of medicinal plants and their active compounds so far has not been documented consistently. Plants are named differently from region to region, while the metabolites isolated from them are given different trivial names in the literature.

The scientists from Leipzig and Halle have now taken a first step towards collecting and standardising this knowledge. To this end, they collected information on the known secondary metabolites, phylogenetic relationships and distribution of the plants on the Indonesian island of Java.

They recorded around 7,500 seed plant species, which contained some 16,500 metabolites listed in substance databases. Based on existing knowledge, almost 2,900 of these metabolites were identified as substances with anti-infective effects against viruses, bacteria, fungi or parasites. These 2,900 active compounds are produced by a total of 1,600 of the 7,500 plant species examined.

This shows that not all plant species produce bioactive compounds in the same way. “Rather, there tends to be a concentration of species that produce active compounds in individual plant families, with those species being usually closely related,” says Professor Alexandra Muellner-Riehl from the Institute of Biology at Leipzig University, who is also a member of iDiv.

In order to better narrow down these groups of plants rich in active compounds, the scientists combined the genetic data and the metabolite information. This made it possible to identify those groups of plants in which anti-infective substances occur with significant overrepresentation – and those where only few anti-infective activities have been documented so far.

“This information allows us to identify specific plant groups that very likely possess anti-infective substances but have not yet been examined for them,” says Dr Jan Schnitzler (Leipzig University and iDiv). At the same time, the study facilitates the identification of species for which little information on the presence of bioactive compounds has been reported so far.

As Professor Ludger Wessjohann of the IPB points out, it is nevertheless important not to ignore these species in the search for new drugs, “because there is a high probability of finding new active substances with as yet completely unknown structures”.

The approach can also be used to identify promising regions rich in bioactive compounds. In this case, the highest diversity of plant species can be found in Java’s mountainous regions, where the greatest density of plants with anti-infective compounds can also be expected.

So the search for new drugs will be more likely to succeed in species-rich areas than in the less biodiverse, agricultural lowlands of central and western Java. If adapted accordingly, Wessjohann and Muellner-Riehl say that this approach could easily be transferred to other geographical areas or other groups of bioactive compounds.

The study was funded as part of the BMBF project “BIOHEALTH – Indonesian Plant Biodiversity and Human Health”. The collaborative project involving partners from German and Indonesian research institutions is coordinated by Leipzig University.

Wissenschaftliche Ansprechpartner:

Professor Alexandra Muellner-Riehl
Leipzig University
Phone: +493419738581

Dr Jan Schnitzler
Leipzig University/iDiv
Phone: +493419738582

Professor Ludger Wessjohann
Leibniz Institute of Plant Biochemistry
Phone: +4934555821301


Laura Holzmeyer, Anne-Kathrin Hartig, Katrin Franke, Wolfgang Brandt, Alexandra N. Muellner-Riehl, Ludger A. Wessjohann & Jan Schnitzler. Evaluation of plant sources for anti-infective lead compound discovery by correlating phylogenetic, spatial, and bioactivity data. PNAS, DOI:10.1073/pnas.1915277117

Dipl.-Journ. Carsten Heckmann | idw - Informationsdienst Wissenschaft

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Protein linked to cancer acts as a viscous glue in cell division
08.07.2020 | Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

nachricht Enzymes as double agents: new mechanism discovered in protein modification
08.07.2020 | Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Excitation of robust materials

Kiel physics team observed extremely fast electronic changes in real time in a special material class

In physics, they are currently the subject of intensive research; in electronics, they could enable completely new functions. So-called topological materials...

Im Focus: Electrons in the fast lane

Solar cells based on perovskite compounds could soon make electricity generation from sunlight even more efficient and cheaper. The laboratory efficiency of these perovskite solar cells already exceeds that of the well-known silicon solar cells. An international team led by Stefan Weber from the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research (MPI-P) in Mainz has found microscopic structures in perovskite crystals that can guide the charge transport in the solar cell. Clever alignment of these "electron highways" could make perovskite solar cells even more powerful.

Solar cells convert sunlight into electricity. During this process, the electrons of the material inside the cell absorb the energy of the light....

Im Focus: The lightest electromagnetic shielding material in the world

Empa researchers have succeeded in applying aerogels to microelectronics: Aerogels based on cellulose nanofibers can effectively shield electromagnetic radiation over a wide frequency range – and they are unrivalled in terms of weight.

Electric motors and electronic devices generate electromagnetic fields that sometimes have to be shielded in order not to affect neighboring electronic...

Im Focus: Gentle wall contact – the right scenario for a fusion power plant

Quasi-continuous power exhaust developed as a wall-friendly method on ASDEX Upgrade

A promising operating mode for the plasma of a future power plant has been developed at the ASDEX Upgrade fusion device at Max Planck Institute for Plasma...

Im Focus: ILA Goes Digital – Automation & Production Technology for Adaptable Aircraft Production

Live event – July 1, 2020 - 11:00 to 11:45 (CET)
"Automation in Aerospace Industry @ Fraunhofer IFAM"

The Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Technology and Advanced Materials IFAM l Stade is presenting its forward-looking R&D portfolio for the first time at...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

Contact Tracing Apps against COVID-19: German National Academy Leopoldina hosts international virtual panel discussion

07.07.2020 | Event News

International conference QuApps shows status quo of quantum technology

02.07.2020 | Event News

Dresden Nexus Conference 2020: Same Time, Virtual Format, Registration Opened

19.05.2020 | Event News

Latest News

Shock-dissipating fractal cubes could forge high-tech armor

08.07.2020 | Materials Sciences

Scientists use nanoparticle-delivered gene therapy to inhibit blinding eye disease in rodents

08.07.2020 | Health and Medicine

'Growing' active sites on quantum dots for robust H2 photogeneration

08.07.2020 | Physics and Astronomy

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>