Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, watermelon, mango, broccoli, and cabbage are healthy and nutritious foods. The NC State University (NCSU) Plants for Human Health Institute (PHHI) is redefining healthy and nutritious by furthering research that identifies the compounds in fruits and vegetables with health-promoting and disease-fighting properties.
PHHI is located at the North Carolina Research Campus (NCRC) in Kannapolis. The institute’s mission is to enhance the health-protective value of food crops and, in turn, increase the economic impact of North Carolina agriculture. PHHI also houses N.C. MarketReady, the N.C. Cooperative Extension program that delivers educational resources throughout the state that are based on the institute’s research. PHHI is headed by Mary Ann Lila, PhD, a scientist recognized for her research into the phytochemical compounds that provide the preventative, curative, and therapeutic properties of berries, particularly blueberries and cranberries. She is also a faculty member of the NCSU Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences and a David H. Murdock Distinguished Professor.
Allan Brown, PhD, an applied molecular geneticist and assistant professor in the NCSU Department of Horticultural Science, is leading the effort to sequence the blueberry genome, a multi-year project involving the NCRC’s David H. Murdock Research Institute, UNC Charlotte, Georgia Institute of Technology, Washington State University, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service. Sequencing the blueberry genome is a major step toward understanding the genetic information of the blueberry, specifically which genes are responsible for making the health-protective natural components in the fruit. It is expected to yield new discoveries in both medical and agricultural research.
Many vegetables also have curative potential. The main focus of Brown’s research is the secondary compounds in broccoli such as sulforaphane, Indole-3-carbinol, lutein, beta-carotene, tocopherols, and calcium that are associated with protection against cancer and other chronic diseases.
“Not all broccoli is created equaled,” Brown said, “and there’s no way to tell when you walk into a grocery store which broccoli has high levels of glucosinolates that are associated with anti-carcinogenic properties of broccoli. We’ve identified a 10-fold difference in different varieties, and we’ve identified some of the genes that are involved in controlling these differences.”
Brown has identified additional compounds in broccoli that appear to have potential health benefits related to cancer prevention and lowering blood pressure. “Broccoli is one of the best vegetables you can eat,” Brown insisted, “not only are there higher levels of these compounds and a range of compounds that aren’t present in other fruits and vegetables, but broccoli packs a potent punch when it comes to chemo-protective properties. We’ve identified a number of these compounds and eventually will develop a broccoli line that has enhanced levels.”
Cabbage is another area of interest. Brown’s cabbage research has recently benefitted from a gift of cabbage germplasm from Monsanto, another NCRC partner. “Cabbage has many of the same compounds broccoli does,” he said. “Broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, brussel sprouts, kohlrabi, and collards, they all belong to the same species. Broccoli is a little superior because it has some compounds that the other vegetables don’t, but we may be able to transfer (compounds) from broccoli to these other vegetables and eventually breed a healthier cabbage as well as a healthier broccoli.”
For more information about upcoming news on the sequencing of the blueberry genome, visit the Plants for Human Health Institute website.