Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Barcoding local - Contributions by course participants (3)

And yet another guest post by one of the participants of the last DNA Barcoding Intro online course. David Hernandez-Martich is a population biologist from the Dominican Republic and describes a number of potential applications in his home country:

Several situations in the Dominican Republic have come to my mind where DNA Barcoding could be useful in addition to the application for evolution, conservation and ecology (including identification/prevention of invasive species). For instance: 
a) Fish that are highly appreciated for human consumption are confused with other less appreciated. It is a common practice to sell the latter labeled as the former in the supermarkets and restaurants;

b) between 2012 and 2013, a considerable storm happened in the Dominican population due to public attacks among DR Government agencies that claimed for/against the presence of large amounts of fecal organisms in locally made salami (this is an important component of the Dominican diet because it is cheap and the taste for it is culturally inherited by Dominicans); 

c) In the last five years,  Moringa oleifera Lam 1783, a plant traditionally used in Asia and other regions for its nutritional value and other health purposes, became popular as a natural product to prevent and cure cancer in DR and other Latin-American countries (mainly due to media reports that supposedly it cured Fidel Castro of  cancer). Dry leaves are sold locally in the informal market either whole (other plants could be sold instead because they could be confused by the layman) or ground (in capsules or bags). They are even exported to USA, Spain and other countries with large Latin-American populations; and 

d) Mamajuana (or Damajuana), an alcoholic drink that is part of the Dominican folklore, which contains spices and leaves, roots, barks and sticks from other plant species. 

All these cases have an impact on tourism, which is very important for the Dominican economy. The last three have also health implications. I chose the last situation to expand for this course assignment.

Mamajuana is used intending to cure a number of health problems, but mainly to enhance sexual performance for males and, to less extend, for women. Some of the ingredients used to make it are rum, wine, honey and spices such as cinnamon sticks and whole cloves. In addition, there is a list of parts from less than ten other plants that are not necessarily shared in all the recipes. The penis of a sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) used to be added. This is not added anymore probably because it would be illegal and would not be as cheap and easy to get as it was in the past. Thus, adding it would increase selling price and reduce demand.

The procedure to make this drink is basically the manual addition of the ingredients in the bottles, and there are only a few registered brand names. At any rate, I do not think there is an effective regulation/supervision of neither the content nor the process to make it. This may lead to the use of plants that contain high levels of compounds harmful to humans rather than those plants claimed to be used. Actually, even though official records on the effects to human health may be nonexistent, some serious adverse effects have been reported. It is consumed by a large number of Dominicans and commonly bought by tourists as souvenir. The procedure to “cure” the ingredients prior to use seems to be standard, but reading the published recipes for this drink, you can tell that there is no a standard list of ingredients and their proportions are missing (and almost sure, they are not standardized either). In addition, just based on morphology, most of the plants used to make it cannot be recognized. In some cases, the manufacturers may be claiming the use of a species, but actually they may be using another that is harmful to humans or legally protected. Therefore, DNA Barcoding may help identifying those species. Even though plant identification is not enough to solve the health and conservation problems caused, it will be an essential component of the solution. Regulation, supervision and standardization are also necessary.

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