Did you ever heard of Bixaceae before? Some probably do. Bixaceae is a rather small family, with a still difficult taxonomic delineation, being closely related to Cochlospermaceae, maybe part of it, maybe a true group on its own. Systematicists may come up with an answer, or maybe not, whenever new sequences are added, but morphological evidence is not straightforward and the question is still a matter of classification preferences. Anyway, I come up with Bixaceae because of an interesting species of course, actually because of the mascot of this family. This species is Bixa orellana, and is also known as Achiote in the English world, Roucou in the French world (or derived names such as Urucu in Brasilian Portuguese, taken directly from Tupi).
Why is this species famous? Well, if you don’t know yet, an interesting substance, bixin, is extracted from its seeds. Bixin, or Anatto, is a wonderfull red dye. It serves as body paint or as a food coloring as well, notwithstanding many other pharmaceutical uses (at least in traditionnal ways). I won’t make up a listing just like I did with pomegranate, but these are strikingly diverse too… Two of them were really interesting and retained my attention, thus…
First, extracts from leaves and branches are apparently showing some level of snake anti-venom activity, either in impeding haemorragic effects of the venom (1) or, though less efficiently, neutralizing its enzymatic effects (2) (and amazingy, oral administration does have some protective effect of some sort, since it decreased mortality in mice). Cool. Apparently, this is one of the known traditional ethnopharmaceutical use of B. orellana. Okay, I have to admit that these studies interested me more specially because I’ve just been reading Mean and Lowly Things, from Kate Jackson (review here), in which the author expresses scepticism about traditional cures of snake bites several times. So to say, sometimes old recipes can be expected to show some effect, and not necessarily be plain woo.
Second, some good news to biologists concerned with the level of toxicity of chemicals that are of common use at the bench. I do, though not paranoidly, pay attention as to how things like safety are handled in labs where I work, just because… And Bixa/Roucou/Achiote can be more than a food coloring, a body paint, or even a remedy against snake envenomination (does this word exist in english?): it has been shown a possible alternative to migration gel dyes like Bromophenol blue (3). A lot of biology involves migrating various things (proteins or DNA fragments) on gels, and Bromophenol blue is used as a visual marker to indicate where the migration front is (you don’t want your extract to run down and escape into the bath solute, you really prefer keeping your samples into the gel and compare their migration distance to those of your controls). The thing is that it is also an irritant and may result in unpleasant symptoms if in contact with skin or inhalated (not something that you would ordinarily give a try, but mishandling occasionnally occurs even in a routine experiment…). It happens that bixin just have the same properties as bromophenol blue: we can see it migrating and it helps us stopping the migration before it’s too late, and it’s migrating at about the same speed than Bromophenol blue on gels. Since bixin is a food colorant, it’s at least not as naughty a chemical as Bromophenol blue is. Furthermore, it is easy and cheap to produce, so that it may conveniently be used as a lab chemical in countries that can’t afford the heavy costs of bench lab science. Cool (two times!).
I still use my own roucou for cooking, but it’s nice to see such unexpected possible uses… If such potential translates into economical run, it may also lead to interesting developments of agroforestry and sustainable crops, as the shrub might be well adapted to associations with small tree crops in diversified production systems (4). This is even more important that genetic improvement of varieties is promising (5) and this crop might well make its way to species of economical importance…
- R. Otero, V. Nunez, J. Barona, R. Fonnegra, S.L. Jimenez, R.G. Osorio, M. Saldarriaga, and A. Dıaz (2000). Snakebites and ethnobotany in the northwest region of Colombia. Part III: Neutralization of the haemorrhagic effect of Bothrops atrox venom. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 73: 233–241.
- R. Otero, V. Nunez, S.L. Jimenez, R. Fonnegra, R.G. Osorio, M.E. Garcıa, A. Dıaz (2000).Snakebites and ethnobotany in the northwest region of Colombia Part II: Neutralization of lethal and enzymatic effects of Bothrops atrox venom. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 71: 505–511.
- R. Siva, G.J. Mathew, A. Venkat and C. Dhawan (2008). An alternative tracking dye for gel electrophoresis. Current Science 94,6: 756-767.
- M.E.A. Elias, G. Schroth, J.L.V. Maceado, M.S.S. Mota and S.A. D’Angelo (2002). Mineral nutrition, growth and yields of Annatto trees (Bixa orellana) in agroforestry on an Amazonian ferralsol. Experimental Agriculture 38: 277-289.
- R. Rivera-Madrid, R.M. Escobedo-GM, E. Balam-Galera, M. Vera-Ku, and H. Harries (2006). Preliminary studies toward genetic improvement of annatto (Bixa orellana L.). Scientia Horticulturae 109: 165–172.