A Christmas Trilogy, Part 1

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In lieu of the traditional collection of items in a monthly issue of the Annals of Botany, Mr P. Cuttings presents the following selection for your delectation, delight, distraction, diversion, etc, during this festive/holiday time of Holivacfest, Seasontide, Snowbreakfest, Winterval, Solsticebreak, Festivefest [or whatever politically correct term we’re supposed to use for Christmas this year]. Included here in Part 1 are some items that hark back to Christmas past; later there will be another for a Yuletide in the here-and-now, and a third concerning the ‘last day of a Pancha Ganapati’ yet to come.

 

Part 1: Hints at Christmas Past…

Whatever one’s religious views, leanings or persuasion one of the best-known Christmas stories is the tale of the Magi, Wise Men (usually three, but not necessarily so…) who visited the infant Jesus and brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Well, by dint of a minor miracle that is the modern-day phytological make-over, the following snippets are offered…

Gold

Gold  Image: Wikimedia Commons
Gold Image: Wikimedia Commons

The immunobotanical equivalent of counting sheep to induce sleep must be enumerating gold dots on ultrathin sections (no offence intended to those who engage in such aurinumerary activities!). Well, if that’s your bag, then Terry Mayhew has a compendium of new approaches for the plant cell biologist who has need to quantify immunogold localisation on electron microscope thin sections (Journal of Experimental Botany, 2011). As the article explains, ‘The various methods are illustrated with worked examples based on empirical and synthetic data and will be of practical benefit to those applying single or multiple immunogold labelling in their research’. And, if worrying about whether there’s enough gold to satisfy all of your immunogold localisation needs keeps you awake at night, fear not! Apparently, it just falls from the sky (I’m probably summarising a little here…), according to Matthias Willbold et al. (Nature, 2011). So, if you wait long enough a heavenly body will provide (hmm, sounds familiar…).

Frankincense

Frankincense  Image: Scott Zona/Wikimedia Commons
Frankincense Image: Scott Zona/Wikimedia Commons

On firmer botanical ground, frankincense is the name given to an aromatic resin from trees of the genus Boswellia, usually B. sacra. Boswellias are found in desert-woodland, rocky limestone slopes and gullies, and the ‘fog oasis’ woodlands of the southern coastal mountains of the Arabian Peninsula, and are generally considered to be ‘under threat’ in the wild. Much of this threatened status is probably due to an ancient association of the resin with various medical and ceremonial practices (and which is not helped by present-day exploitation of B. papyrifera in the fragrance trade: Rijkers et al., Journal of Applied Ecology, 2006). However, some degree of protection is accorded those frankincense trees still found today along the so-called Frankincense Trail in Oman, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Bringing the story up-to-date, an age-old remedy for arthritis, that cruel and crippling bane of old-age, has been investigated by a team at Cardiff University (Wales, UK). An extract of B. frereana – a rare frankincense species(!!) – has been shown to inhibit the production of key inflammatory molecules that help to prevent the breakdown of the cartilage tissue (which causes the condition). Although the Somalis have used frankincense traditionally in this way for centuries, the 21st Century approach uses ‘innovative chemical extraction techniques to determine the active ingredient in frankincense’, which should enable the active chemical(s) to be characterised and compared against other anti-inflammatory drugs used for treating arthritis. That report is more than a little reminiscent of older work by Sengupta and co-workers (Arthritis Research & Therapy 2008), who demonstrated the arthritis-relieving value of 5-Loxin®, a novel extract from B. serrata. Extending the medicinal value of frankincense to cancers, Frank et al. demonstrated that the oil of B. carteri appears to distinguish cancerous from normal bladder cells and to suppress cancer cell viability (BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2009), which therefore has potential as an alternative therapy for bladder cancer. With all these potentially life-quality-enhancing/life-extending discoveries – from a wide range of Boswellia species – and on top of their other uses – it’s small wonder these trees are under such threat in the wild! The sooner we have the minor miracle that is the synthetic chemist’s art to develop sustainable – ‘artificial’ – alternatives, the better!

Myrrh

Myrrh  Image: Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen, 1887.
Myrrh Image: Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen, 1887.

Myrrh is another aromatic plant exudate. Technically, an oleoresin, myrrh is a natural gum that exudes from thorny trees of the genus Commiphora, primarily C. myrrha, in response to wounding. Fancifully, one might liken the liquid outpouring to tears from a tree that is crying because of the pain it has suffered during wounding. In which vein it has some resonance with accounts of an icon of the Virgin Mary that is reported to have wept myrrh. Apparently, the crying began in 2007 when the icon was in Hawaii, about the time of the start of the financial crisis that still plagues global stock markets and threatens to overwhelm the world’s financial institutions – and some countries – to this day. I’m sure we’ve all had cause to weep because of that! When last heard of, the myrrholachrymatory icon was in St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Bakersfield (California, USA). Rather less religiously, but around Christmas time in 2006, patrons of The Star public house in Belgravia (west London, UK) were invited to identify myrrh and frankincense handed to them on a plate. The session was organised by the UK’s august Royal Society of Chemistry to celebrate the centenary of myrrh’s first scientific analysis. Both mystery compounds were correctly identified by a Mr Michael Powell who received £300 of vouchers to spend at Fortnum and Mason (a department store in central London; founded in 1707, it is recognised internationally for its high quality goods and as an iconic British symbol). Sounds like Michael’s the winner who got the gold, thereby completing the biblical threesome! Myrrh has been used medicinally for hundreds of years and doubtless still has many secrets to give up. Modern studies implicate the exotic plant extract in cholesterol-lowering activity, at least in overweight albino rats, according to the work of Nadia Saleh Al-Amoudi (International Journal of Food Safety, Nutrition and Public Health, 2009). However, the author cautiously – and sagely – concludes that ‘More studies are needed to confirm the effect of myrrh as overweight and obesity controller agent’ (which is also a good line to use whenever one wants to secure further funding to continue an area of research!). Finally, and in a curious reverse effect (to prevent weight loss, albeit that due to decomposition!), the body of Admiral Horatio Nelson was said to have been preserved in myrrh-infused brandy during its journey back to the UK after the Battle of Trafalgar.

 

Tune in again soon for Part 2: From Christmas Past to Christmas Present…


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