Plants with naturally occurring medicinal compounds growing today in Mississippi could hold the keys to tomorrow’s cures and become important crops for the state’s farmers.

Ganisher Abbasov, a Mississippi State University doctoral student in agronomy, has a project involving the study of American mayapple, lemongrass and basil. Abbasov is studying how nutrients, location and soil type affect plant productivity and medicinal compounds in those plants.

A native of Uzbekistan, Abbasov spent the summer of 2006 cultivating and harvesting plants across the state for his research project. His data should allow him to develop steps for farmers or commercial producers to follow to get higher quality and more product in a short period.

“I want a system so growers will know what to do to get particular medicinal compounds from plants,” Abbasov said.

“We are studying the effects of nitrogen and sulfur on crop productivity, how essential oils combine and build up in basil and lemongrass, and the anticancer compound podohpyllotoxin in mayapple,” Abbasov said.

Valtcho Jeliazkov, a research professor at the North Mississippi Research and Extension Center in Verona and Abbasov’s advisor, said pharmaceutical companies get most of their mayapple from India. MSU researchers and colleagues from the University of Mississippi have demonstrated that American mayapple contains the same bioactives as the Indian mayapple and could be developed as a new cash crop.

“We’re trying here to shift things so U.S. farmers can benefit from the use of mayapple in pharmaceutical products,” Jeliazkov said. “We’re trying to introduce American mayapple as an alternative to Indian mayapple by providing a more consistent supply.”

Abbasov is researching what conditions are prime for increasing the concentration of the natural anticancer compound in mayapple.

Abbasov is conducting experiments with basil and lemongrass at locations in Verona, Stoneville and Poplarville. The plants and treatments at each site are identical. It is the location and soil type that vary.

“We have a long way to go to take this wild plant and cultivate it,” Jeliazkov said.

Abbasov’s project is part of Jeliazkov’s larger project funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop medicinal and aromatic plants as alternative crops for Mississippi growers. Both scientists are studying how plants develop in the Mississippi climate. They are also extracting secondary metabolites, such as essential oils, alkaloids and phenolic compounds. When the plants are harvested, their chemical profiles are analyzed and bioactivity evaluated.

“We want to see if medicinal and aromatic plants will grow and perform the same as in other places in the world,” Jeliazkov said. “Yields, chemical composition and bioactivity may be different based on location.”