Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Alaska blueberries: Who knew they were THIS good for you?

Photo by Jeff Fay, UAF Cooperative Extension Service
There’s a certain delight in knowing that a UAA chemistry professor deciphering the exact properties of Alaska’s bog blueberries that make them so good for us is Fairbanks-born and raised. Surely his time spent gathering these gems on the tundra sparked curiosity about their antioxidant qualities?

Well, surprise, surprise, that wasn’t the case.

In  2005, as Colin McGill faced a choice between two research options for his doctoral work at UAF, he chose a new blueberry project because he hoped to discover and isolate the as-yet-unknown natural chemical compounds in the berry.  Today, he’s very glad he made that choice: Blueberries are turning out to be a new gold rush for health.

The berry’s beneficial qualities were already known when McGill started his research; but at every science conference where they were discussed, the first, second and third question was always: What is it – EXACTLY – that makes this berry so powerful?

People assumed it was the colored compounds that turned them blue, the anthocyanins. But McGill isolated two other anti-inflammatory compounds that give the berry its tartness: citric acid and malic acid. Domesticated berries have relatively little; Alaska’s bog blueberries are loaded.

In fact, the farther north and the harsher the climate, the higher the concentrations of these two acids in Alaska blueberries. If you dried interior berries, they would be 10 percent citric acid (that’s the same amount as a lemon!) and one percent malic acid, making those two compounds the berry’s dominant ingredients.

“It’s not just the species, but the location, that matters,” McGill says, noting that berries picked 400 miles north of Anchorage are more potent than those picked only 150 miles away. Again, the harsher the climate, the better the berry.

Now, the human body can make these compounds on its own. But McGill theorizes that when we are under “oxidative stress” (an imbalance that can create free radicals, which figure in lots of diseases), we may deplete our own supply. These two acids suppress inflammation, and their lack makes us more susceptible to it. Can we somehow inoculate ourselves against excess inflammation by fortifying ourselves with blueberries?

With the INNOVATE funds he just received, McGill will try and find out. He’ll apply these acids under different circumstances to document and understand their effects. He’s collaborating with Penn State researchers who’ve shown the compounds can slow tumor growth rate.

 “One way tumors grow is by inflaming surrounding tissue,” McGill explained. “While the compounds didn’t kill the cancer, they slowed it down.”

McGill has an additional collaborator from UAF, Kriya Dunlap, who is examining how the blueberry compounds – citric and malic acid -- affect insulin uptake in the body.

McGill’s own question is about neurodegeneration. In the case of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, cells – healthy cells – begin to commit suicide.  Why?

When cells are under oxidative stress, they show a slight increase of a fat or lipid molecule, called a ceramide. These are known as “signaling” molecules and are known to trigger “programmed cell death.” The presence of a little ceramide launches a feedback loop, ratcheting up ceramide levels and avalanching cell death – hence the memory loss and disorientation of aging.

Could the malic and citric acid so common in Alaska bog blueberries be used to intervene here? To literally step in and stop this catastrophic chain reaction?

Stay tuned.  The world of blueberry-based pharmaceuticals is definitely heating up. McGill notes that research papers on the topic have tripled between 2005 and 2008.

“Americans, and people internationally, are much more concerned about what they eat, and where it comes from,” he said.

Meanwhile, McGill is enthusiastic about what he’s learned about blueberries, and a few other edibles that help prevent inflammation.

“If I were to make three dietary recommendations, they would be eat blueberries, drink green tea and take fish oil. All three are anti-oxidative and prevent inflammation,” he said.

He’s thrilled to be working with compounds that figure so prominently in important cancer, diabetes and neurodegenerative research.


Colin McGill is an assistant professor of Chemistry in UAA's College of Arts and Sciences.  Born and raised in Fairbanks, he completed his doctorate in Biochemistry/Molecular Biology at UAF in 2010 and subsequently trained as a Postdoc with the UAA WWAMI program. His research focus is on the identification of biologically relevant compounds in medicinal plants and determining the mechanism of their actions.

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