The Application of DNA Molecular Approaches for the Identification of Herbal Medicinal Products

Alice Gutteridgea, Malcolm Burnsa,b
(a)  Molecular and Cell Biology, LGC, Queens Road, Teddington, Middlesex, TW11 0LY, UK
(b)  To whom correspondence should be addressed. Telephone: (+44) (0)208 943 7000,
    Fax: (+44) (0)208 943 2767


Traditional herbal medicines, inclusive of those originating from China, India and Korea, incorporate a wide range of plant species with beneficial properties that have conventionally been relied upon to treat ailments and disease. In recent years these medicines and treatments have gained popularity in the West as non-prescribed alternatives to conventional pharmaceuticals, as consumers are reportedly more comfortable taking products that are deemed natural, and assume that side-effects are less severe. Production of herbal medicines is often not strictly regulated, leading to a multitude of quality control problems that are difficult to identify once the plants have been processed into powders, tinctures and other preparations. Adulteration with morphologically indistinguishable species is a particular problem that can arise from mistaken identification upon harvesting, ambiguous taxonomy due to confusion between Latin nomenclature and local terminology, fraudulent substitution using less potent/valuable species, or masking of endangered species. As well as misleading consumers, adulteration of medicines can put consumers at risk of unknown chemical interactions with other drugs, and allergic reactions.

Traditional approaches for identification of herbal products include chemical analysis and microscopy but the former may lack accuracy when species or population determination is required and the latter requires skills and experience that are increasingly scarce. Molecular DNA approaches for speciation can be capitalised upon to facilitate detection and identification of herbal species. This report outlines the major developments in molecular methods for species identification and their applicability for use with unknown or disputed herbal medicines. The increased availability of accurate species-specific DNA sequence information facilitated by the establishment of open-access databases has laid the foundations for DNA molecular approaches to impart specific, sensitive and reliable identification of herbal medicinal plants and their products.

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