Rare Andaman plant found to have anti-cancer properties

Medicinal properties: Piper sarmentosum is an extremely rare plant of the pepper family.  

An extremely rare plant of the pepper family that received a fresh lease of life at the Jawaharlal Nehru Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute (JNTBGRI), Palode, after being wiped out from the South Andaman Island by the 2004 tsunami has now been found to have anti-cancer properties.

A phytochemical analysis of Piper sarmentosum revealed the presence of myristicin, a naturally occurring phenolic compound known for its anti-cancer role, JNTBGRI scientists said. The analysis revealed the occurrence of pharmacologically important compounds including myristicin (77%), hydrocinnamic acid, and caryphyllene.

Moreover, a nutritional analysis of the plant — which now thrives in its new home at the JNTBGRI — has revealed that it can be used as a substitute for Thippali (Long Pepper - Piper longum) in Ayurvedic preparations. For want of a name in Malayalam since the plant has not been reported elsewhere on Indian territory except the North Bay area on South Andaman, the TBGRI staff have informally started calling it the Andaman Thippali!

Collaborative studies with the Department of Botany of the University of Kerala have also enabled the JNTBGRI to standardise protocols for the mass multiplication of Piper sarmentosum through tissue culture.

The importance of its restoration at the JNTBGRI Field Gene Bank using pre-tsunami germ plasm from the Andamans cannot be overstated, JNTBGRI scientists said. “From a floristic point of view, Piper sarmentosum is an ‘extra Indian species’, meaning it is not found in mainland India. While it is not reported elsewhere in India, it occurs in south-east Asian countries like Malaysia where it is cultivated and used in cuisines and for treating ailments,” said Dr. Sam Mathew, senior scientist, Plant Genetic Resource Division, JNTBGRI, who was instrumental in the discovery of Piper sarmentosum in the South Andaman and its subsequent restoration at the JNTBGRI.

The way to discovery

Scientific significance apart, there is an interesting story behind the plant’s discovery and subsequent identification. Dr. Sam Mathew had stumbled upon the species on South Andaman in 1992 during his days as a botanist with the Botanical Survey of India (BSI). Though he located it, he took it for Piper longum which it resembles. Anyhow, he brought back samples for the BSI and the JNTBGRI that he joined in 1993. In 2004, the JNTBGRI formally reported Piper sarmentosum as a new addition to Indian flora.

The same year, the tsunami devastated the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. On his return to the South Andaman after the catastrophe, Dr. Mathew found the entire Piper sarmentosum population to have been washed away. Both the BSI and the JNTBGRI were alerted of the loss after which conservation efforts gained renewed vigour.

“Its restoration here is highly significant, especially in the context of environmental changes. It reflects the need to conserve such plants not in any one place alone, but in multiple locations exhibiting similar agro-climatic conditions. If, for an example, an ecosystem gets destroyed, the diverse life forms that depend on it should not be lost to us,” JNTBGRI Director Dr. R. Prakashkumar told The Hindu.

Structurally, Piper sarmentosum resembles the long pepper (Piper longum). It has long ‘stolons’ or runners with procumbent fruit-bearing branches. JNTBGRI also plans to re-introduce the species in its original habitat in collaboration with the Department of Botany.

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Printable version | Sep 27, 2021 7:39:58 AM |

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