Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Two women scientists cited for novel plant research

Nonato (left) and De Leon

Two women scientists have received awards from international science research communities for their novel research on endemic plants. 

In a recent press briefing, Maribel Nonato and Rizalina de Leon were presented by the Philippine Association for the Advancement of Science and Technology (PhilAAST), headed by Science Secretary Fortunato de la Peña, as recipients of this year’s Gregorio Y. Zara Awards for Basic and Applied Research.  

PhilAAST aims to promote scientific and technological research that contributes to knowledge stock and national development.

Nonato was conferred the Gregorio Y. Zara Award for Basic Research for her pioneering work on Phytochemistry and biological activities of Philippine genus Pandanus (family Pandanaceae), better known as pandan. 

De Leon was given the same award for Applied Research for her bioethanol production using local varieties of fungi as alternative sources of ethanol additives replacing food-based crops such as corn.  

Currently vice-rector for research and innovation at the University of Santo Tomas, Nonato has spent years doing groundbreaking research on pandan.  

Prior to her research, there was little known information about pandan. Locally, 20 out of 450 species of this monocot plant grow abundantly in the country. Ordinarily, pandan leaves are used in preparing sweet delicacies and beverages due to their sweet aromatic scent.  

Pandan leaf is most commonly used when cooking rice.  

In contrast, the closest the pandan has been considered as a herbal medicine was when the plant was included in pito-pito, a popular traditional concoction of seven endemic plants in the country used to relieve common illnesses. 

Nonato started her research in 1991. “Look for subjects that have little information so you can contribute to the development of new knowledge,” she said.

She had initial talks with world-renowned botanist Benjamin Stone who was then working with the National Museum on an inventory of Philippine medicinal plants.  
Research stalled with Stone’s death, but Nonato continued her work. 

Her research led to the discovery of new secondary metabolites with biological activities, the basis for the plant’s medicinal attributes. With this breakthrough discovery, neighboring countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand undertook similar research on their respective Pandanus species. 

Moreover, biological studies on pandan have found it a potential source of anti-microbials, anti-viral, diuretics, anti-tuberculars, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents. 

Consequently, Nonato’s research on the new alkaloids earned her the 2006 National Research Council of the Philippines Achievement Award in Chemical Sciences. Her various works on pandan have led her students to give her the moniker “Pandan Queen.”   

On the other hand, De Leon’s research focused on bioethanol production. 

Deviating from the usual bioethanol feedstock using corn and other similar food-based materials, De Leon worked on local fungal species that can degrade complex polymers called lignin to produce ethanol as fuel additives. 

According to her, corn and other food-base raw materials should not be used in the production of alternative fuel as this threatens food security in the country.

Her team identified Fusarium moniliforme, one of the most prevalent fungi, as a promising source of ethanol through a consolidated bioprocessing approach that extracts the ethanol from its solid form. 

The bioprocess provides the fermentation resulting in the production of a substance with higher ethanol concentration at a shorter processing time.  

Other scientists cited were Enrico Paringit, recipient of the David M. Consunji Award for Engineering; Antonio Dans, for Dr. Paulo C. Campos Award for Health Research; and Antonio Laureana as this year’s Leads Agri awardee.  

PhilAAST confers the awards annually on men and women of science who have contributed new knowledge for the advancement of science and technology in the country. Awardees receive P50,000 cash and a plaque of recognition. 


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The Mail Man

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