Mistaken identity: Tools help to distinguish the medicinal from the endangered

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  • Published: Oct 1, 2016
  • Author: Ryan De Vooght-Johnson
  • Channels: Laboratory Informatics / Chemometrics & Informatics
thumbnail image: Mistaken identity: Tools help to distinguish the medicinal from the endangered

Curative knowledge

Three Panux species are caught up in a case of mistaken identity. Local herbalists and traditional Chinese medicinists scanning the lush, evergreen forests of South-Western China and Northern Vietnam in search of the Panux species with reported health benefits are inadvertently plucking the wrong ones.

Homo sapiens has long been involved in the extinction of Earth’s species. Take the megaflora and fauna of Australia as an example. No sooner than the aboriginals meandered across the now-submerged Australian shelf, fires were ablaze, the native plants razed to the ground in a smoky plume, and the indigenous mega-animals assigned to the genetic graveyard.

The elephant bird of Madagascar, left in peace for thousands of years, also met a similar fate soon after humankind clambered off their rafts. Many would argue that much the same occurred in the Americas too.

But events are much clearer in hindsight, and, in defence of our ancestors, they were in a struggle for existence and weren’t to know the consequences of their actions. If ignorance is the sickness, knowledge is the cure. And now we are in the fortunate position of being able to use H. sapiens’ super-species vantage point to attempt to keep others afloat on Noah’s ark.

Dr Xia is an analytical chemist at Zhejiang Sci-Tech University in China who is attempting to do just that. Along with collaborators across China, Xia set out to develop tools to identify and distinguish three species of the Panux genus: P. notoginseng, P. stipuleanatus, and P. vietnamensis, and for very good reasons.

Mistaken identity

These three Panux species are caught up in a case of mistaken identity. Local herbalists and traditional Chinese medicinists scanning the lush, evergreen forests of South-Western China and Northern Vietnam in search of the Panux species with reported health benefits are inadvertently plucking the wrong ones. ‘Misidentification or adulteration can easily occur,’ Xia and co-workers admit in the Journal of Separation Science.

To make matters worse, these plants were scarce to begin with, so much so that the Vietnam authorities have listed P. stipuleanatus and P. vietnamensis as endangered. Fortunately, Xia and collaborators think that chemical fingerprinting of the species-specific saponin profiles could distinguish between the members of the Panux family.

For this, the researchers procured 26 samples of the endangered species from the Yunnan region of China and the Ha Giang Province of Vietnam. He then reduced these to a powder and extracted the saponin ‘fingerprints’ over a one-hour incubation with 70% methanol followed by ultrasonication. Saponins were identified by a photodiode array detector as they were eluted off a C18 column using a reverse-phase gradient.

Twenty-two peaks

Through submitting the reams of chromatograms to a ‘fingerprint ID software’, which meticulously trawled for minute differences not visible to the naked eye, 22 peaks able to distinguish between species of Panux were identified. Peaks one and seven were characteristic of P. stipuleanatus, for example, whilst six and seventeen were tell-tale of P. vietnamensis. What was clear, however, was that it was not the presence of these saponin peaks that was telling, but more their abundance.

Too complex to analyse manually, the group turned to silicon to find patterns in the data. Firstly, their analysis of clustered hierarchies tended to group samples belonging to the same species together, adding gravitas towards fingerprint-based identification. Secondly, further crunching of this data reduced the complex data sets to a set of three principal components, which accounted for 80% of the overall variability in fingerprints.

In the battle against extinction, knowledge is the cure. Yet, the challenge of translating this knowledge into a survival benefit remains.

Related Links

J. Sep. Sci., 2016, Early View Paper.. Xia et al. High-performance liquid chromatography based chemical fingerprint analysis and chemometric approaches for the identification and distinction of three endangered Panax plants in Southeast Asia.

Article by Ryan De Vooght-Johnson

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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