Research on Phytochemicals continues for a second year

A microphoto of a phytochemical, courtesy of WSU

PULLMAN – Research on the benefits of phytochemicals in apples and raspberries will expand to include other major Washington crops, continuing a project that a WSU scientist began last year.

Bernd M. Lange, assistant professor in WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry, spearheaded the research project, beginning in the fall of 2007, with the goal of developing a high-throughput analytical method of measuring levels of health-related phytochemicals in crops.
“Phytochemicals, in general, are active chemicals in plants that can be of nutritional value,” Lange said. “There are hundreds of thousands of phytochemicals known; some are toxic to humans, some are beneficial.”
It is the “beneficial” kind that Lange said he is researching and plans to evaluate to see if claims can be made that Washington produce provides health benefits to consumers. In the first year of research, a large number of phytochemicals were identified in apples and raspberries, and correlations were beginning to be made to determine their abundance in particular varieties. This year, Lange said, the focus will be on extending previous work, as well as expanding research to include sweet cherries, potatoes, wheat and milk.
Lange said he wants to see, for instance, if there are any detectable differences in phytochemical content in milk from cows that are grass-fed versus milk from cows in a feed lot.
John Reganold, a WSU Regents Professor of soil science and one of Lange’s research colleagues, said he hopes also to study differences in phytochemical content in fresh fruit versus stored fruit and organic fruit versus inorganic fruit.
Lange said the high-throughput analytical method by which he measures phytochemical content is called metabolomics. He explained that a crop sample is first ground to a fine powder, extracted with appropriate solvents, and then injected onto a column. Once on the column, the extract, which contains hundreds to thousands of phytochemicals, is separated into individual phytochemicals. One by one, the phytochemicals exit the column where they enter an instrument called a mass Spectrometer. The mass spectrometer then detects the phytochemicals, and information about their chemical structure can be deduced.
The results of this type of analysis are visualized in the form of a chromatogram, where each phytochemical corresponds to a peak. This process can take between one to five hours for a single sample, Lange said, and thousands of samples were processed in his laboratory over the past year.
“The long-term goal is to make (metabolomics) a standard screening protocol so industry can use it to let consumers know the nutritional value of their food,” Lange said.
“Research conducted with metabolomics offers so much to the future,” Reganold said. “This is just the start. There is so much potential.”
So far the Murdock Charitable Trust and the WSU Agricultural Research Center’s Emerging Research Issues grant program have funded the bulk of instrument and research costs, Lange said.
If successful, Lange said, his research on phytochemicals in Washington crops could boost WSU’s reputation and demonstrate to potential collaborators the capabilities of the M.J. Murdock Metabolomics Laboratory in the Institute of Biological Chemistry.
Assisting Lange in his research, along with Reganold, are Preston Andrews, associate professor of horticulture, and Neil Davies, associate professor of pharmacy. Several undergraduate and graduate students are also involved in the research.