While plants are being extensively explored for new therapeutic properties and pharmacological activities, the communities of live fungi and bacteria known as endophytes that live between living plant cells, are also now being regarded as having many useful potential medicinal applications. Ironically, in recent years it is these microorganisms associated with plants rather than plants themselves, which seem to be receive much research interest.
Endophytes are microorganisms that live within a plant for at least part of their life cycles, without causing apparent disease or infections in the plant. Different endophytes seem to have affinities for particular plants, with which they have distinctive and cherished but complex interactions while each of them grows. They are for instance known to sometimes enhance host growth and nutrient gain, improve the plant’s ability to tolerate various types of stressors, and enhance the its resistance to insects and pests. The rrelationships that these bacteria and fungal communities have with their host plant varies from symbiotic to parasitic, to bordering on pathogenic.
Some very unusual and valuable bioactive substances are sometimes produced by these endophytes, such as alkaloids, phenolic acids, quinones, steroids, saponins, tannins, and terpenoids, and these are increasingly being recognized as sources of novel compounds which may help to maintain or solve not only the plant’s health challenges, but can also have applications in human and animal health problems.
Over the past few decades, some highly medicinal compounds produced by endophytic microbes lead to novel drug development. These include Taxol (paclitaxol), a complex diterpene alkaloid produced by the endophyte Metarhizium anisopliae found in the bark of the Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia) tree, and one of the most promising anticancer agents ever developed. Also streptomycin, an antibiotic produced from the bacterial endophyte Streptomyces.
Other endophytes possess antibacterial activities which may be useful in treating various infections, and in a world where antibiotic resistance is becoming a major public health threat, these are obviously of great interest. Exploring and bioprospecting these for potential antimicrobial compounds may well yield valuable new natural products or drugs to help in the fight against resistant organisms(1,2,3,4).
It now seems that bacterial communities colonizing Echinacea purpurea contribute to its well-known immune enhancing activity(5). American researchers have reported that Echinacea’s stimulating activity on monocytes (a type of white blood cell involved in engulfing and destroying harmful microbes), could be solely if not partially accounted for by the activities and prevalence of Proteobacteria, a family of bacteria found in the bacterial community associated with this medicinal plant.
A screen of 151 different endophytic bacteria isolated from three different compartments of Echinacea purpurea, revealed that several bacteria isolated from the roots are strong inhibitors of Burkholderia cepacia complex bacteria, a serious threat particularly in immune-compromised cystic fibrosis patients(6). One of these bacterial strains also showed antimicrobial effects against Acinetobacter baumannii, a pathogenic bacteria mainly associated with hospital-acquired infections, and Klebsiella pneumoniae, also increasingly incriminated in hospital infections(7). Interestingly, the type of bacteria and their antimicrobial effects varied considerably, according to which part of the plant (root, stem, leaves etc) they were associated with. This has resemblances to different plant parts of Echinacea having different phytochemical and thus pharmacological activities, such as Echinacea roots being richest in alkylamides and thus anti-inflammatory activities.
Endophytic fungi including Penicillium commune and Penicillium canescens (related to the Penicillium notatum mould from which the first antibiotic penicillin originated), have also been isolated from the leaves of olive (Olea europaea) trees, and several of these have also shown antibacterial as well as antifungal activities in recent work(8).
Finally, a rich endophyte community has recently been identified by Lincoln University researchers for the New Zealand native plant Manuka (Leptospermum scoparium). A total of 192 culturable bacteria were recovered from leaves, stems and roots, including some showing activity against the bacterial pathogen, Pseudomonas syringae pv. actinidiae(9), otherwise known by Kiwifruit growers as Psa. With Psa being a serious risk to the health of the Kiwifruit vine, it could be that these endophytic bacteria found within Manuka will make a useful contribution to ensuring the future health of the Kiwifruit industry.
While very few of all of the world’s plants have had their complete complement of endophytes studied, these are just three well established medicinal plants from which some highly active cohabitating bacteria and fungi have been sourced. Undoubtedly this area of research will receive much more attention due to growing concerns about antibiotic resistance, as there would seem to be a huge opportunity to find new and interesting endophytes among the wealth of different plants growing not only in soil, but also in waterways and oceans.
1. Alvin A et al, Microbiol Res 2014; 169(7-8)L483-495.
2. Martinez-Klimova E et al, Biochem Pharmacol 2016; Oct 27.
3. Kealey C et al, Biotechnol Lett 2017; Mar 8 (epub ahead of print)
4. Tanwar A et al, Microbiol Path 2016;101:76-82
5. Haron MH et al, Planta Med 2016; 82(14):1258-1265.
6. Chiellini C et al, Microbiol Res 2017; 196:34-43.
7. Presta L et al, Res Microbiol 2017; 168(3):293-305.
8. Malhadas C et al, World J Microbiol Biotechnol 2017; 33(3):46.
9. Wicaksono WA et al, PLoS One 2016; 11(9):e0163717.