Heavy metals in South African medicinal plants with refence to safety, efficacy and quality.
The trend in commercialization of medicinal plant products reflects the excessive exploitation of medicinal plants from the wild populations. Due to widespread soil pollution, there is a likelihood that medicinal plants could be harvested from heavy metal-contaminated soils and thus pose a potential health threat to consumers. Unregulated procurement coupled with the unhygienic trading environment, poor post-harvest handling and processing, represent major routes of heavy metal contamination in medicinal plant products. A comparative screening was carried out to assess the levels of heavy metal contamination in some frequently used South African medicinal plants obtained from out-door traditional medicinal markets and muthi shops. Plant samples were digested using a microwave-assisted acid digestion system and the elemental content determined using inductively coupled plasma optical emission spectrophotometry (ICP-OES). There was multi-elemental contamination in the investigated medicinal plants with elevated levels of Fe, Al and Mn detected in most of the samples and levels of As and Hg were above the World Health Organization limits of 1 mg kg-1 and 2 μg kg-1 respectively. The high levels of metal contaminations in some of the investigated medicinal plants is a health concern and urgent measures are needed to protect the health of consumers. Samples were quantified for their total phenolic and flavonoid contents as well as screened for antibacterial activity. Variable phenolic and flavonoid composition and antibacterial activity showed that the quality and efficacy of medicinal plants sold at traditional medicine markets is compromised. Data obtained from elemental analysis was subjected to hierarchical cluster analysis which categorized samples into four main groups with samples within a group having relatively similar metal analyte compositions. Hierarchical cluster analysis proved to be a valuable tool in this preliminary screening of heavy metal contamination in medicinal plants and can potentially be used to develop a large database for easy monitoring of plant species with hyperaccumulative potentials. Information such as site of collection, plant species and plant part could be a valuable approach to ensure safety, efficacy and quality of medicinal plants sold at traditional medicine markets. Exposure to Cd and Al for six weeks in a pot trial induced responses in Bulbine natalensis, Drimia elata and Hypoxis hemerocallidea and these included variations in heavy metal uptake, growth parameters and physiological changes. Generally, application of Cd and Al at low concentrations (2 and 500 mg L-1 respectively) enhanced growth parameters in the three plant species compared to the control plants. However, at the highest concentrations of Cd 10 and Al 1500 mg L-1 respectively, there was significant growth inhibition. Hypoxis hemerocallidea exhibited good tolerance to Al exposure up to 1000 mg L-1 compared to the other plant species. Some of the physiological changes such as accumulation of free-proline increased progressively with increasing heavy metal treatments in all the investigated plant species. The combined treatment of Cd 5:Al 1000 mg L-1 exhibited synergistic effects on the uptake and accumulation of Cd and Al with values of about 83 and 918 mg kg-1 respectively in the bulbs of D. elata. In B. natalensis, the combined treatment of Cd 10:Al 1500 mg L-1 resulted in the highest amount of Cd (67 mg kg-1) in the bulb samples while the highest amount of Al (1607 mg kg-1) was recorded after treatment with Cd 5:Al 1000 mg L-1. There was an antagonistic effect on the uptake and accumulation of Cd in H. hemerocallidea in the combined treatments. Energy dispersive X-ray analysis of the abaxial leaf surface indicated that more Al was translocated to the shoot in H. hemerocallidea compared to Cd. The bulbs and corms of the investigated medicinal plants are the most extensively utilized plant parts in traditional medicine. High levels of Cd and Al in the bulbs and corms raise public health concerns. Analysis of photosynthetic pigments showed total chlorophyll progressively decrease with increasing heavy metal stress in all three plant species. The effect of Cd and Al on chlorophyll fluorescence in H. hemerocallidea was investigated. Non-photochemical quenching (NPQ) was adversely affected in most of the heavy metal-treated plants indicating a photoinactivation of photosystem II (PSII) reaction centres. In the present study, increasing heavy metal treatment resulted in the inability of H. hemerocallidea to utilize the absorbed light energy leading to oxidative stress. Exposure to Cd and Al treatments for six weeks induced several ultrastructural changes in H. hemerocallidea including damage to the cortical cells and an increase in xylem size. Transmission electron microscopy revealed a complete breakdown of the thylakoids at the highest Cd treatment and the application of Al at moderate and the highest treatment significantly reduced the size of the chloroplasts. These ultrastructural changes could possibly explain the reduced chlorophyll fluorescence and the amounts of total chlorophyll recorded at the higher levels of heavy metal treatments. Biosynthesis and accumulation of secondary metabolites under heavy metal stress were variable in the investigated plants. The moderate Cd treatment at Cd 5 mg L-1 up-regulated the synthesis of total phenolics slightly compared to the controls in B. natalensis. All the other heavy metal treatments down-regulated the synthesis of total phenolics and flavonoids compared to the control plants in B. natalensis. Application of Cd and Al at the lowest concentrations, 2 and 500 mg L-1 respectively up-regulated the synthesis and accumulation of both phenolics and flavonoids in D. elata compared to the control plants. In H. hemerocallidea, the highest amounts of total phenolics and flavonoids were recorded at the moderate Cd treatment (5 mg L-1). High performance liquid chromatography showed a significant decrease in the levels of hypoxoside, a bioactive compound in H. hemerocallidea after heavy metal exposure. The lowest amount of hypoxoside was recorded at the highest concentration of the combined treatment (Cd 10:Al 1500 mg L-1). These variable responses to heavy metal stress indicated the need for in-depth research on changes of secondary metabolites in medicinal plants exposed to heavy metals in order to ensure ultimate quality and efficacy of medicinal plant products. There was a progressive decrease in antioxidant activity as measured by 2,2-diphenyl-1-picrylhydrazyl (DPPH) radical scavenging in the bulb extracts of B. natalensis and D. elata. The lowest treatment of Al (500 mg L-1) had slightly higher DPPH activity compared to the positive control (ascorbic acid). Extracts of H. hemerocallidea exhibited a progressive increase in DPPH activity with increasing heavy metal treatments. There was a significant decrease in the DPPH activity at the highest Cd application (10 mg L-1) compared to the control plants indicating a loss in the biosynthesis of important bioactive compounds at high levels of heavy metal exposure. Cadmium applied at low and moderate concentrations enhanced antibacterial activity (0.78 mg mL-1) against Staphylococcus aureus in B. natalensis compared to the control plant extracts. However, there was poor antibacterial activity against Escherichia coli in all the heavy metal-treated plants in B. natalensis. Application of Cd and AL at low concentration in D. elata enhanced good antibacterial activity (0.78 mg mL-1) against E. coli which is less susceptible to antibiotics than S. aureus. Extracts from all Cd-treated plants as well as low and moderate Al-treated H. hemerocallidea plants exhibited the good antibacterial activity against S. aureus compared to the control plants. Plants treated with the combined Cd 2:Al 500 mg L-1 treatment also had good activity against S. aureus. However, all the extracts of H. hemerocallidea exhibited poor activity against E. coli. The responses of plants to Cd and Al varied depending on the species. Their ability to accumulate elevated levels of heavy metals raises concerns not only on the safety of these products but also the issues regarding the quality and efficacy of plants grown on heavy metal contaminated soils. The findings presented in this thesis highlight the need for stringent monitoring of heavy metal contamination in medicinal plant material sold at traditional medicine markets and the need for safe and sustainable cultivation of important medicinal plants. This will ensure that medicinal plant products are of a standard quality, safe from toxic contaminants and consistent in terms of phytochemical compositions.