Australian scientists are investigating new ways to mass-produce the active ingredients found in the herbal medicines echinacea, ginseng and gynostemma.
Extracts from these plants are commonly used to stimulate the immune system, alleviate cold and flu symptoms and boost energy levels, and researchers from Food Science Australia are attempting to discover whether hairy root cultures can be used as sources of large quantities of the plant extracts.
Hairy roots are named after the shape of the very fine roots that can be formed by plants that are infected by certain bacteria. Scientists are investigating ways to use this natural process to produce cheaper ingredients for herbal medicines.
"During winter many people will take herbal medicines to fight off colds and flu. There is an increasing demand for traditional sources of some popular medicinal herbs. Some of these plants grow very slowly and demand is greater than supply," said Dr Philip Franks, leader of the research, which is being carried out in collaboration with the Co-operative Research Centre (CRC) for Bioproducts.
Scientists are already able to produce valuable products from plant cells, but hairy root cultures are believed to offer particular advantages. To be commercially viable the tissue culture must grow rapidly and in large quantities, and Franks said the Australian researchers aimed to grow the hairy roots in a 10,000-litre fermentation tank.
"The challenges faced by our researchers are to encourage rapid growth of the plant material and to stimulate them to produce the active component," he said.
Food Science Australia's scientists and collaborators in the CRC for Bioproducts are leaders in cell culture technology and are exploring applications in food and medicinal applications. Food Science Australia is the largest Australian food research organisation and a joint venture of CSIRO and the Australian Food Industry Science Centre (Afisc).