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ODU Botanist Timothy Motley Researching Exotic Plants in China

Timothy Motley, an Old Dominion University botanist, is a member of a team of scientists who will investigate the plants and their traditional uses in a region of China that is sometimes cited as the inspiration for the fictitious Shangri-La.

The team will look into the sickness prevention, diagnostic, curative and cosmetic potential of botanicals from herbs to food crops. Plants that grow in southwest China near Tibet traditionally have been used for a wide range of pharmacological applications, and the Chinese government believes some of the uses may qualify for protection under Traditional Knowledge and Intellectual Property agreements.

One of the chores for the scientists will be DNA "fingerprinting" and chemical analysis of the plants to establish just how unique some of them may be. The researchers also will be isolating compounds that can be the bases of healthy foods, medicines and cosmetics. Motley's specialty in molecular systematics earned him a role in this analytical phase of the project.

Under a "111 Program" grant of about $1.3 million from the Chinese government, Motley and 9 other researchers from the United States will collaborate on the five-year project with an equal number from the Central University for Nationalities (CUN) in Beijing. The program gets its name from the government's goal to introduce 1,000 foreign academic scholars from the top 100 academic institutions in the world to work short-term in Chinese universities on 100 different projects.

Researchers from the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG), where Motley worked prior to becoming ODU's J. Robert Stiffler Distinguished Professor of Botany in 2006, joined with others from Yale, Columbia and several additional universities to work out the collaboration with CUN and win the grant. Motley and Edward J. Kennelly, a professor of biological sciences at Lehman College, City University of New York, are the laboratory research principal investigators for the grant.

The research team leaders are Dayuan Xue, chief scientist of CUN's College of Life and Environmental Sciences, and Charles Peters, a researcher at NYBG.

Motley and Kennelly are in the closing phase currently of a $250,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to do DNA and phytochemical fingerprinting of Actaea racemosa, commonly known in North America as black cohosh or Eastern bugbane. Black cohosh, the seventh most widely used herbal in the United States with annual sales of over $8.5 million, has long been used for medicinal purposes by American Indians and is widely sold now as a natural alternative for hormone therapy to treat menopausal women and to treat side effects of prostate surgery. The researchers have done DNA tests to help differentiate therapeutic black cohosh from its poisonous relatives and are working to identify and isolate active chemical components of the plant.

Work on the NIH project led to Motley and Kennelly's role in the research in China. "It is linked and this is a continuation since Ed and I are the laboratory research team for the Chinese grant, continuing to do phytochemical and DNA fingerprinting and analysis," Motley said. "Also, there are black cohosh relatives in China, which will allow us to expand upon our NIH study."

Motley's work under the grant won't all be in the laboratory. He and Kennelly spent two weeks in Beijing and Kunming in June to kick off their part of the project. Motley visited five research institutions and lectured at two of them, CUN and Peking Medical University. He was made an adjunct professor at CUN, where he and other American researchers involved in the project will periodically visit during the next five years to train Chinese scientists. The focus of this training will be in the growing field of ethnobiology.

Most of the botanical samples that the researchers will be studying will come from the so-called "minority" provinces such as Yunnan, Guizhou and Sichuan in the southwestern reaches of the country, more than 1,000 miles from Beijing.

Some of most beautiful and tranquil localities on the globe are in this region. Much of the scenery looks to be from an earlier time, far different from the modern cityscapes in Beijing and Shanghai that the Summer Olympics audience is seeing. Lush plant life can be found in the region's valleys and terraced gardens and rice paddies. Temperatures typically are moderate to warm and the air is humid.

Sustainable harvesting practices and the plant usages of the ethnic minorities fall under the term of "ethnobotany," which Motley said is the keyword of the project. The latest work in this subfield of ethnobiology stresses the right of an indigenous population to protect their indigenous plants, and to be compensated for any new food crops or medicines that come from these plants. These rights-in the intellectual property realm-might also extend to the wisdom behind the traditional uses of the plants. If a large, multinational company, for example, were to make a new anti-cancer drug from a plant that people in southwest China had prescribed for a long and healthy life, the region would want to be compensated.

Two specific goals of the research project are to make CUN into an internationally recognized center for ethnobiological studies and to develop a series of databases on Traditional Knowledge and Intellectual Property that could be used as guides by the Chinese government in rights-compensation agreements and disputes.

Motley said the latest geographic information systems (GIS) technologies and remote sensors will be used to catalog botanical resources in the target region. Also the project calls for the development of strategies to protect rare and endangered species, and for studies to determine appropriate plant species to introduce in the region for cultivation.

This article was posted on: August 14, 2008

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