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Diversity of Biologically Active Plants and Plant-Derived Compound

Combining historic knowledge with new data about the potential uses of species

Disseminating information through the Plant Cultures website

Plants and fungi are of primary importance in our lives, although the importance we place on utilising and conserving species of plants varies depending on our needs and our knowledge and understanding of these species.  Kew has a long tradition of studying the economic uses of plants and this is reflected in the diversity of information about their uses in our libraries and in the 80,000 objects in our Economic Botany Collection.

This project combines historic knowledge with new data about the potential uses of species being generated from chemosystematic and biological activity-based projects. Within this project the outputs from sustainable uses of plant projects being undertaken within the other scientific teams are collated and the information disseminated via scientific publications and on the internet. Thus the over-arching aim of the project is to document and explain some of the traditional uses of plants as well as identify more species of plants that can be used sustainably for economic and social uses, for example, by furthering our understanding of species uses in the treatment of various medicinal conditions, such as tuberculosis, cancer, malaria and diabetes. A high proportion of these projects involve collaborations with colleagues in Africa, Asia and South America. However, in recent years more research has focused on European plants and fungi as reflected by the projects on the medicinal activity of British plants and the screening of the British fungi for biologically active molecules, projects undertaken within the remit of the UK team.

As a result of this project more information about the diversity of species that have economic uses as well as knowledge about the role of compounds in these plants and the distribution of biologically active compounds among different plant families and genera has been published.  Information has been collated on frequently used to treat diabetes (1,700 species), malaria (over 3,000 species), tuberculosis (over 1,300 species) and cancer (over 500 species) covering a total of over 5,000 species of plants from a wide range of families. In some cases the same species can be used to treat more than one condition. To date our work has concentrated on surveying the diversity of phenolics (especially flavonoids),  terpenoids  (especially diterpenoids) as well as alkaloids in these species.  Once active compounds are identified then the DNA-based phylogenies are used to select related species that might contain similar compounds. This approach often provides a range of compounds for structure active-based studies to identify why a specific compound or group of compounds work. Results from the comparative phytochemical studies have show that it is often the profile of compounds in a species that contributes to its biological activity rather than just a single compound. 

This project also ensure that more of the historical information at Kew about the development of plant-based medicines is linked with current developments in the search for new plant-based drugs.  For example, increasing access to the historical information at Kew about the development of the use of Cinchona for the treatment of malaria with data from current research into the active ingredients of other anti-malarial plants from parts of Africa and South America will illustrate the importance of plants in our lives and the scope of information and expertise at Kew.

Project partners and collaborators

GhanaUniversity of Accra

Agricultural Research Institute
The National Museums
Forestry Research Institute
University of Lagos

TunisiaIRA, Medicine
Monastir University
Sfax University
UKBirkbeck College
Cambridge University
Greenwich University
Kings College, London
Leicester University
Oxford University
School of Pharmacy, London

Project funders

Culture OnLine (DCMS)
Darwin Initiative
English Heritage
Proctor & Gamble
USAWorld Cancer Research

Project team

Herbarium, Library, Art & Archives

Gwilym Lewis, Alan Paton

Jodrell Laboratory

Frances Cook, Steve Davis, Rui Feng, Olwen Grace, Renée Grayer, Paul Green, Melanie Howes, Geoff Kite, Sonny Larsson, Christine Leon, Mark Nesbitt, Elaine Porter, Tom Prescott, Monique Simmonds, Phillip Stevenson, Jill Turner, Nigel Veitch

Science Teams: 
Project Leader: