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