Learning from plants

Dr Nokwanda Makunga, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Botany and Zoology, Stellenbosch University, is using biotechnology to meet the aims of commercialisation and sustainable biodiversity resource use.

Medicinal plant biotechnology is a new paradigm for South Africa. “We use third-generation high-end biotechnology to look at how plants function,” says Makunga.

“Most South African laboratories focus on proving that plants have active components.” “Plants manufacture very complex molecules that can’t be copied in a laboratory. We have been taking some plants and genetically modifying them to create a new chemistry or to increase a key compound that is produced naturally,” she says.

The genetically-modified plants are not put back into the wild but instead are used as a tool to study plant metabolism. These plants act as biofactories, potentially yielding interesting leads for new drug discovery.

Makunga says that South Africa has a beautiful flora but that it is under explored: “There are between 3 000 and 4 000 species that are used in medicine, health and crafting.” With more people buying herbal supplements, the phytotherapy industry is growing and Makunga’s work caters for this.

Due to the unique nature of this country’s local flora, global demand for other plants native to South Africa (apart from rooibos) is also on the increase. Makunga notes that folklore connected with medicinal herbs is ancient knowledge that mustn’t be undermined.

This article originally appeared in the Mail & Guardian newspaper as an advertorial supplement

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