Mr. Moses Ndubuisi Nwakanma, a botanist, geneticist and environmental biologist, is a lecturer in the Department of Biological Science, Yaba College of Technology, Lagos. In this chat with Vanguard Learning, Nwakanma whose interest is in medicinal plants like Moringa oleifera, called the Drumstick plant/ tree of life or Miracle tree, Vernonia amygdalina (bitter leaf) and guava, says if we understand plants, we will be happier in our health.
'If doctors go on strike as they did some time ago and you require medical attention, if you understand plants, it will not catch you off guard, but if you don't, and you rely solely on orthodox medicine, it will be a problem, so that is why I concentrate on studying medicinal plants.' Excerpts:
According to Nwakanma who has worked extensively on moringa, bitterleaf and guava, moringa can be used against anxiety, depression, insomnia, skin infections, intestinal parasites etc. "If you rub the essential oil from the seed on your skin, it takes care of skin infections. It has a wide spectrum of actions. Whether it is the leaf, or the seed, every part has something to offer, so I choose to call it miracle tree," he said.
Bitter leaf, (Vernonia amygdalina) which has been a common feature in local herbal practice, is used to control diabetes, reduce high blood pressure and "we also found that it is indicated more recently against malaria and intestinal worms, just like moringa. So we got interested in some of these medicinal plants.
Also, Dr Ofodile, (my present head of department) and I, looked at the antimicrobial activity of guava leaves. We also worked on moringa against malaria because malaria is a problem in the tropics, Nigeria to be specific. A lot of people are dying of malaria. It kills more than any other disease known in the tropics.
According to WHO report, 80 per cent of these cases are in pregnant women called gestational malaria and infants. A lot of infants/children die of malaria so the fatality level is very high. Our research is therefore, centred on plants, to use plants to contribute to society with respect to treatment."
As a result of having his second degree in Environmental Biology and Genetics, Nwakanma got involved in some chromosomal works and toxicity.
"A lot of these plants and drugs may be good and attending to the problem; but what we are not sure of are the side effects so my own aspect of research deals with the side effects which could be manageable if they are just ordinary side effects but if they affect the chromosomes or genes, then it is a big problem, so I do a lot of genotoxicity work to find out whether the genes are affected.
If it affects the genes or chromosomes, it means it can be transferred from parents to children so it is important to me as a geneticist to look at the genotoxicity effect, whether plants, drugs or any food material that gets into the body. So my work revolves around cell biology, genetics, and environmental biology and plants are a major component of the environment," he stated.
Continuing, Nwakanma said they looked at the rise in cases of hypertension, diabetes, stress, malaria and many other maladies in the society "and we hope to find most of the solutions in plants. If we must combat most of these diseases, then we must go back to plants.
Our parents and our forefathers used them but then we say they were illiterates, but they knew plants, now we know a lot of things but we don't know plants and the death toll has hit the roof. When they did not know much but knew plants, the death toll was less but we know a lot of book work now, yet we don't know plants and death rate has gone very high.
Our intention here is to call people back to plants. Most of the solutions to different diseases lie in the forests of Africa so we are calling people back to plants, let us look at the natural products that God has given us. Most of the tablets we swallow come from plants but we now make synthetic products, analogues of the natural materials. So if we go back to the natural materials, we will be happier."
Using bitter leaf to clean up polluted soil:
"There are some other aspects of research, the environmental aspect particularly. Last year we did a research using bitter leaf to attempt to clean up an environment that was polluted with diesel and petrol (gasoline). The outcome was so interesting that the work was accepted and published by an international journal.
The toxic effect of diesel and gasoline polluted soil by Vernonia amygdalina (bitter leaf). Nwakanma 2011. We have also successfully done a similar type of work using crude oil and spent engine oil. If you go to any mechanic workshop to service your car, they will drain the oil from the car and pour it in the surroundings hoping that it will simply disappear or volatilize, but we have found out that more often than not, if you put crops in this soil, they may have problems producing optimally.
Today, we hear about spills here and there, and it is causing a lot of problems, whether onshore or offshore, spills are spills and they can affect farmlands.
How do you clean up that polluted environment?
"Among many plants that have been tested before are cowpea and soybean, so we decided to test bitter leaf, whether it can be useful in such an area and the result at the moment is very promising. You plant the stems of the bitter leaf on the polluted soil. We did it with different concentrations, it uptakes the oil from the soil.
You know as you are working, some also will be lost through leeching and other means, but we are interested in its ability to uptake. As a step further from what we did last time, we decided to look at the plant now and the total hydrocarbon content. We also looked at the total hydrocarbon content of the soil.
The idea was to be able to make a definite statement on how much hydrocarbon was up-taken from that polluted soil. There are many mechanisms that plants use when they are doing phyto-remediation. It could be by phyto-extraction, phyto-volatilization etc., so we are trying to trace the pathway through which the bitter leaf uptakes and what it does with it.
If anything can affect the chromosomes, it will affect the plant but in the one we did last year and the one we have done this year, we have seen the same pattern. It affects their mitotic processes, so the chromosomes are not able to complete their mitotic cycle, so over time, it is possible that the plant after taking up so much, may die.
So we are looking at the window period between when it is used on that polluted soil and when it is able to uptake so much and clean the soil and whether it will lead to its death or not. This is going to be a major breakthrough in the area of phyto-remediation."
He advised people against eating plants grown in polluted soils because the fact that the pollutants affect the genes and chromosomes of the plants means that they will be affected. "Chromosomes are of universal occurrence; as they are in plants, so are they in animals and humans. So if they can affect plants, they can affect humans," he said.
"We want also to see if for instance you have a piece of land close to a mechanic village which you intend to use for agricultural purpose, how do you clean up the soil to make it ready? The implications are very wide ranging. We are hoping that the research will lead us to something positive that will benefit man, starting here in Nigeria," he enthused.