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Working with Mother Nature

by Elise LeQuire

Plants can’t flirt with pollinators or outrun their enemies, but they have evolved complex chemical strategies for survival. The Bioactive Natural Products Center of Excellence wants to harness the power of these natural compounds to control plant diseases and explore environmentally sound ways to reduce weed and insect pests.

The center, funded in 2001, is already poised to market novel uses of the herbaceous perennial Monarda, also known as bee balm or Oswego tea. “The complex chemicals this plant produces in its flowers and leaves have potential as antifungicidal agents. We have applied for a patent for the use of Monarda as a delivery system for bioactive compounds,” says Dr. Kimberly Gwinn, acting science director for the center.

This compound is of potential interest to the multi-million-dollar greenhouse and container plant industries in Tennessee. “Before a plant leaves the greenhouse, it receives several fungicidal applications. If we can reduce those, then we have done a good thing for the environment and worker safety,” Gwinn says.

Monarda‘s volatile essential oils can also act as a weed suppressant, says Mary Collins-Shepard, the center’s administrative director. “We are working very hard to make use of the seed money awarded to the center to develop proposals and marketing strategies for bioactive products,” Collins-Shepard says.

For farmers, bioactive crops could help offset income lost through reductions in the amount of tobacco they grow. Moreover, growing and harvesting plants such as Monarda is less labor intensive than many traditional crops and requires few, if any, applications of pesticides. “We want to offer farmers and growers choices and do as much as possible to help our environment,” Gwinn says.

The center collaborates with researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s (ORNL) world-class Environmental Sciences and Chemical Sciences divisions. “With ORNL, we are simulating what bioactive agents would do in the environment. We don’t want to release something that has a negative impact on the environment,” Gwinn says.

Contact: Dr. Kimberly Gwinn, (865) 974-7135,

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