When Jessie MacAlpine was in grade 10, she learned that garlic mustard is considered a problem weed in Canada because it produces a chemical that keeps seeds from germinating.
Intrigued by the possibilities, she spent the next two years researching and developing a herbicide based on an aqueous extract of that invasive species – and won the gold medal at the Canada-wide Science fair two years in a row for her efforts.
“The bioherbicide is broad spectrum, extremely effective but non-toxic, and inexpensive to produce,” explains MacAlpine, who is originally from Woodstock and is now in her second year of microbiology and computer science studies at the University of Toronto.
Because it inhibits germination of all seeds, not just weeds, it could be ideally suited for farmers who transplant seedlings propagated in greenhouses or who are in the turf business, for example.
The product has been effective on everything she’s tested it on, including during small scale field trials using corn and soybeans.
It’s something that needs further research, though, and she’s hoping to find a commercial partner to help her with that.
“The results in the small field trials replicated what happened in the lab, but we still need to scale up the field trials to do more extensive testing,” she says.
A project in Grade 11 that involved sending mosquito nets overseas to help combat malaria made her wonder if her bioherbicide research couldn’t have human health applications too – as a treatment against a disease that killed 627,000 people worldwide in 2012, according to World Health Organization statistics.
She found a possible solution in mustard oil, which contains the most highly concentrated form of the natural chemical she found in the garlic mustard, and is produced and used as cooking oil in many malaria-endemic countries.
Heat disrupts the oil’s chemical composition, which makes it less effective at treating malaria when it’s been cooked, but ingesting the raw oil could treat the disease, she says.
“The raw form is where the anti-malaria properties are, and why we haven’t seen this in the past. Because they use the oil to cook, they’re not seeing that effect,” she explains.
The oil could be taken in liquid or pill form, and early research results are showing that a dose of 10 mg per person might be a sufficient treatment.
Canadian farmers shouldn’t rush out to plant a lot of mustard acreage just yet, though.
Mustard oil is cheap to produce in countries like China, India and Brazil, so $30 could buy about 10 million doses and producing it locally where it is needed to combat malaria would be more cost-effective than producing it in higher cost countries like Canada and then exporting it, MacAlpine says.
So far, her malaria research is still very preliminary, but it has garnered her some prestigious awards, including the International Cooperation Prize at the European Union Contest for Young Scientists, Best in Category at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, and Canada’s Top 20 under 20 in 2014.
She has yet to do any clinical trials, but she’s currently conducting lab trials at the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health in Toronto, and although there aren’t any research grants in her name yet, she’s hopeful her work will continue.
“I’ve always wanted to complete school to the PhD level and it would be cool to stick with the work that I’m doing and branch out in the global health sector,” she says. “I really enjoy the work I’ve done in the past that focused both on environmental and economic sustainability – something that is the best choice not only for the environment but also in terms of our wallets.”