Sunday, 23 January 2011

An unusual twist in war against invasive species

Sent to help rid park of Japanese barberry, NCC student discovers its medicinal value.

By Christopher Baxter, OF THE MORNING CALL
11:27 p.m. EST, January 21, 2011

As ruthless invaders go, the Japanese barberry has quite the reputation. Sent from Russia more than a century ago, the spiny shrub with red berries lures onlookers like a Siren of the garden, enticing green thumbs to plant its seeds and then escaping to conquer the land.

The best way to stop it: Don't fall for its song. But that strategy failed long ago.

Battles these days are more like lopsided skirmishes, pitting swaths of entrenched barberry against small groups of nature's militiamen. They use their hands, herbicides, even blowtorches, anything to gain the high ground on the forest foreigner.

Bethlehem native Michael MacDonald joined the ranks about a year ago. As part of his biology course at Northampton Community College, he elected to fight a patch of barberry in Jacobsburg state park. He discovered, however, that the foe may not be so bad after all.

"While I was writing a paper on our work in Jacobsburg, I stumbled on some interesting stuff about how barberry has these medicinal compounds," said MacDonald, a sophomore biological science major. "So I thought it would be cool to extract the chemicals from the plant."

In partnership with professors William Magilton and David Gelormo, MacDonald and another student tested the leaves, stems and roots of the barberry to determine what chemicals they contain and how they might help someone with an ailment who happens to be lost in the forest.

"The project allowed first- and second-year students to use instrumentation and research methods that a lot of biology and chemistry majors wouldn't be able to do until graduate school," Gelormo said.

Medicinal use of barberry dates back more than 2,500 years, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. One of its primary chemicals, berberine, has been used to ease inflammation and bladder infection, sore throat, nasal congestion and diarrhea, among other ailments.

Barberry is often taken by steeping its roots or berries in a pot of tea, but is also available in capsules or as a topical ointment. It should not be taken over a long period of time without consulting a doctor, according to the center, and is not recommended for children.

"We wanted to know what someone could do if they were to go into the park, or go somewhere where the barberry is invasive, which is pretty much anywhere in Pennsylvania, and needed to get the highest concentration of berberine," MacDonald said.

Two rounds of research, which involved some high-tech instrumentation, revealed that the roots have the highest concentration of berberine, MacDonald said. Ailing forestgoers should note, however, that the amount of berberine depends on the age of the plant.

MacDonald will present the findings at an upcoming meeting of the local chapter of the American Chemical Society. Though he's never tried barberry to cure any of his ills, he's open to the idea. And as for his interest in botany, well, that's something that just grew naturally.

"I love watching plants grow," he said.

He admits, however, that not everyone shares his affinity for botany. So when he explains his work to friends, he often talks about how many of the medicines they use every day are derived from plants. That he knows from his father, a pharmacist.

MacDonald, now 26, dropped out of Northampton shortly after high school but has returned with a vengeance. He has a 4.0 grade-point average after four semesters, and hopes to get his bachelor's degree, his master's degree and maybe even a doctorate.

"I'm kind of riding a fence between medicine and agriculture," MacDonald said. "I've got my hand in both pots.",0,142695.story

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