Modern biotechnological approaches could reveal medical and industrial uses for the same herbs and spices used in spaghetti sauce and other Italian fare, says Assistant professor Kalidas Shetty of the UMass Food Science Department.
Shetty is researching the possibility of using thyme, oregano, savory, rosemary and sage for purposes such as preserving foods, preventing cancer and protecting people from inflammatory diseases. Each herb serves a different purpose.

Shetty conceived of using herbs for medical and food processing applications when he was living in his native southern India and learned that early explorers had always used spices as food preservatives.

“I’m really going back to the original purpose of using herbs,” says Shetty, who came to America in 1984, and arrived at the University a year and a half ago. “Explorers from the Middle East and Europe had always used herbs and spices to preserve food, and those spices evolved into becoming flavor enhancers. This even led Columbus to search for a new route to the East, and landed him in the Americas.”

Researches have bandied around the age-old theory of using herbs and spices for medical purposes since the 1950s, said Shetty, but modern biotechnological approaches have facilitated studies for such theories.

Shetty’s first approach is to exploit the anti-microbial properties of chemical components in herbs that, when added to specific foods, could fight off food pathogenic bacteria such as Salmonella or E-coli. Shetty is conducting this work in collaboration with UMass professor of Food Microbiology Ronald Labbe.

“Currently, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate and other synthesized chemical compounds are used to protect against pathogens,” Labbe says. “Some chemical components of herbs would provide a natural alternative to those chemicals.”

Shetty also believes that certain components could be used as anti-oxidants, which prevent the natural deterioration of foods. Synthesized anti-oxidants, such as butyl-hydroxyanisole (BHA), and butyl-hydroxytolune (BHT), are currently used as anti-oxidants, but Shetty said these compounds have been suspected to cause cancer of the stomach and bladder. He believes that herbs could serve as chemo-preventative agents, which prevent the beginning stages that lead to cancer.

“Lipid oxidation, or deterioration of the membrane, can trigger the development of cancer,” says Shetty. “Some herbs contain chemical compounds that could prevent that deterioration from beginning in the first place.”

Shetty also suspects that some herbs contain anti-protozoal and anti-malarial properties. He is collaborating with UMass professor Linda Nolan in studying the effects (of what??) on these microorganisms.

Shetty began researching these approaches using a biotechnological approach called plant tissue culture. This technique includes using in vitro conditions in the laboratory to grow cloned plants of each spice from a single seed. Shetty snipped and planted an offshoot of the first plant that sprouted, and produced 12-15 clones of each herb by planting offshoots of successive plants. Shetty explains that he grew plants in a controlled environment because herbs grown outdoors tend to be heterogeneous.

“The plants grown outdoors are cross-pollinated by nature,” says Shetty. “Certain elements, like the wind and insects, make each plant different than the next.” Shetty’s second step, which he is about to undertake, uses several analytical and chemical approaches that enable him to screen each clone for desirable chemical compounds that produce anti-microbial, anti-oxidant, or anti-protozoal properties. Shetty will also determine the level at which these chemical compounds are present. Professors Labbe and Nolan will then use specific extracts from elite clones and test them (??) in their respective microbial systems.

Using another biotechnological approach, Shetty will characterize key enzymatic pathways that regulate the synthesis of the above chemical compound, and the level at which these compounds are present.

Shetty will then isolate and characterize the genes that regulate the synthesis of the enzymes that produce the chemical compounds. Finally, he will breed transgenic (??) plants containing the genes that produce the highest levels of the desired chemical compounds.

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