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Building on basics

Building a better vegetable

Growing up in what was then East Germany, Steffen Abel was no stranger to broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and the like. "I got really tired of them," the UC Davis plant researcher admits. "I far prefer the rich variety of California vegetables. But it would be nice to have the same anti-cancer compounds in bell peppers as in cabbage. Or maybe in an apple. "

Abel, an assistant professor of vegetable crops at the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, is not alone in these sentiments. Cruciferous vegetables, despite their status as veritable factories of important nutrients and vitamins, have long languished on America's dinner plates. This juxtaposition between what plants people like and what plants are good for them lies at the heart of the researcher's two-year, $300,000 project to identify genes that are important for the synthesis of sufora phane, a powerful anti-carcinogen found in cruciferous vegetables and the humble research plant Arabidopsis thaliana.

The study of phytochemicals natural compounds found in plants is an emerging and popular scientific discipline. Cancer researchers have known for years that fruits and vegetables are full of beneficial compounds such as antioxidants, isothio cyanates, diththiolthiones, lycopenes, and carotenoids. These substances act to protect plants from intense sunlight, slugs and bugs, and other environmental hazards. In people, more than 200 studies have provided evidence that phytochemicals prevent or delay tumor growth, encourage natural cell death (also known as apoptosis), and boost the immune system by mopping up dangerous reactive molecules known as free radicals.


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Supporting Cancer Center
UC Davis Cancer CenterUC Davis Health System

Steffen Abel hopes to identify genes in plants that synthesize a powerful anti-cancer compound.