Scientists have discovered that the same genes that are responsible for the intense, bitter taste of wild cucumbers often used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) may just be the same compound that could be used to treat cancer and diabetes according to the journal Science.
Scientists have discovered that the same genes that are responsible for the intense, bitter taste of wild cucumbers may just be the same compound that could be used to treat cancer and diabetes. While this "bitterness" gene was removed from pumpkin and their relatives to make them into popular foods, wild cucumber could potentially hold further potential for health.
"You don't eat wild cucumber, unless you want to use is as a purgative," said William Lucas, co-author of the new study, in a news release. Traditional Indian and Chinese medicine used the exceptionally bitter leaves and fruit of cucumbers and other cucurbits (wild squash, melon, and pumpkins) to induce vomiting and to even treat liver disease.
Past research has found that theses bitter compounds have other medical benefits as well, where they may help fight inflammation and adverse body reactions that lead to things like diabetes and the growth of cancer cells. However, it has been difficult to extensively test for this, as the wild compounds are hard to gather in large quantities.
That's why Lucas and his colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences sought to figure out what genetic information produces these bitter compounds. They quickly determine that two genetic traits produced the bitterness in leaves and fruit separately, and we able to taste-test their way to finding plants with the highest concentrations.
Modern DNA sequencing technology was then used to identify the exact changes in DNA associated with bitterness. Nine gene changes were identified in all, leading to the direct production of the bitter compound, called cucurbitacin. Understanding how cucerbitacin is made can now help researchers make more, opening up opportunities to extensively study its medicinal benefits. Lucas adds that this can also allow experts to tweak other bitter or normally inedible plants, potentially developing new crops for a hungry world.