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   Nov 14

Inspecting the True Identity of Herbal Materials from Cynanchum Using ITS2 Barcode


• Key Laboratory of Bioactive Substances and Resources Utilization of Chinese Herbal Medicine, Ministry of Education, Institute of Medicinal Plant Development, Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and Peking Union Medical College, Beijing, China

Cynanchum is a large genus with some important medicinal species in China. The medicinal species in Cynanchum are easily confused, leading to potential safety risks. In this study, the internal transcribed spacer 2 (ITS2) barcode was used to discriminate the medicinal plants in Cynanchum. The identifying capability of ITS2 was assessed using the specific genetic divergence, BLAST1, neighbor-joining (NJ) tree, maximum-likelihood (ML) tree, and single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) methods. Results indicated that the intra-specific genetic divergences of Cynanchum species were lower than their inter-specific genetic divergences. Of the 87 samples from 17 species, ITS2 showed a high identification efficiency of 90.8 and 87.4% at the species level through BLAST1 and the nearest distance methods. NJ tree and ML tree also demonstrated the suitability of ITS2 to differentiate Cynanchum species. Meanwhile, a stable SNP was found, and it could accurately authenticate Cynanchum paniculatum and Cynanchum atratum. Furthermore, we collected 64 commercial samples from three commonly used herbal medicines and evaluated the capability of ITS2 to survey their authentication. Of these samples, Cynanchi Atrati Radix et Rhizoma (Baiwei) showed a potential safety problem, and all the 11 test samples were adulterants. In conclusion, ITS2 can distinguish medicinal species in Cynanchum effectively, and its application could greatly improve the identification efficiency and accuracy of commercial herbal medicines in this genus.


Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), an integral part of Chinese culture, plays a predominant role in the healthcare system of China, and it is recognized as a primary treatment strategy. Herbal medicine accounts for more than 80% of Chinese medicine resources, taking an essential part in the TCM system and medicine market. Meanwhile, herbal medicines are used as a complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) worldwide (Zhu and Woerdenbag, 1995; Eisenberg et al., 1998; Ernst and White, 2000; Bensoussan and Lewith, 2004). However, counterfeit drugs, misidentified drugs, and mislabeled drugs are sold in the market prevalently, resulting in side effects and drug resistance. Xin et al. (2015) surveyed commercial Rhodiola products and found that only 40% of samples are authentic Rhodiola crenulata, indicating potential risks and safety problems of medicine use. Han et al. (2016) investigated 295 medicinal species, including 1,436 samples from seven primary TCM markets in China, and identified that about 4.2% of the samples were adulterants. These studies highlighted the urgency of accurate identification of herbal medicines.

Cynanchum of the family

Asclepiadaceae is a large genus with about 200 species that are widely distributed in Africa, North America, South America, Asia, and Europe. Cynanchum consists of 57 species in China, 19 of which are used as herbal medicines. For centuries, medicinal plants in Cynanchum have been applied for the prevention and treatment of various diseases, with C21 steroidal glycosides as the major active components (Gu and Hao, 2016). Cynanchi Paniculati Radix et Rhizoma (Xuchangqing), which originated from the dried roots and rhizomes of Cynanchum paniculatum, is used to relieve rheumatic arthralgia, lumbago, and other types of pain and exhibits anti-inflammatory, anti-nociceptive, and neuroprotective activities (Choi et al., 2006; Weon et al., 2012). Cynanchi Stauntonii Rhizoma et Radix (Baiqian), derived from dried rhizomes and roots of Cynanchum stauntonii or Cynanchum glaucescens, is used for descending Qi, relieving cough, and expelling phlegm. Its anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and antitussive activities have been reported as well (Yang et al., 2005; Yue et al., 2014; Yu and Zhao, 2016). The dried roots and rhizomes of Cynanchum atratum and Cynanchum versicolor, known as Cynanchi Atrati Radix et Rhizoma (Baiwei), have been used for clearing heat to cool the blood, disinhibiting urine to relieve stranguria, and removing toxin to treat sore. Meanwhile, Baiwei displays anti-inflammatory, cell apoptotic regulating, and acetylcholinesterase inhibitory activities (Lee et al., 2003; Jeon et al., 2011; Zhang et al., 2015). Bunge Auriculate Root (Baishouwu) is an appellative name for the root tubers of Cynanchum auriculatum, Cynanchum bungei, and Cynanchum wilfordii in China, which is a famous tonic drug in TCM and known for its functions in enriching vital essence and enhancing immunity (Shan et al., 2006). Pharmacological studies suggested that Bunge Auriculate Root exhibits antitumor, antidepressant, anti-inflammatory, and antiepileptic activities (Peng et al., 2008; Yang et al., 2011, 2014; Li et al., 2016). In addition, the root of Cynanchum otophyllum (Qingyangshen) has antifungal and antiepileptic activities (Zhao et al., 2007). All the parts of Cynanchum chinense (Erongteng) are used to treat colds and chills (Yu et al., 2015). Cynanchum wallichii (Duanjieshen) is used in the famous Chinese prescription “Hulisan” as a primary drug to treat arthrophlogosis and injury from fall or fracture (Zhang and Zhou, 1983).

In general, species in the same genus feature similar morphological characteristics. However, the highly similar morphological features of many Cynanchum species complicate species discrimination in this genus, resulting in herbal medicine confusion. For example, Cynanchi Paniculati Radix et Rhizoma, Cynanchi Stauntonii Rhizoma et Radix, and Cynanchi Atrati Radix et Rhizoma are all recorded in Chinese pharmacopeia (2015 edition) and are the most commonly used herbal medicines from Cynanchum. These medicines are very similar in appearance that they are usually used incorrectly or in confusion. However, these three medicines generate completely different effects, leading to safety problem when they are misused in clinical practice. The herbal medicine Bunge Auriculate Root (Baishouwu) is under the same circumstance. The original plants of Baishouwu are C. auriculatum, C. bungei, and C. wilfordii in China as mentioned above. In Korea, Baishouwu is registered in Korea Herbal Pharmacopeia as Cynanchi Wilfordii Radix (Baek Su O), used as food and traditional herbal medicine. C. wilfordii is the only original plant of Baek Su O, whereas C. auriculatum is considered an adulterant (Kim et al., 2005). The cut and dried roots from C. wilfordii and C. auriculatum in the Korean herbal market are commonly misused because of their similar morphology (Li et al., 2013). Aside from morphology factor, homonym is another cause of herbal medicine confusion. One typical case is that C. wallichii and C. otophyllum are both sold with the name Qingyangshen in the market. However, their effects differ from each other completely (Zhang and Zhou, 1983; Zhao et al., 2007). Confusion between them is a latent threat to the safety and interests of consumers.

At present, relevant studies for the identification of Cynanchum species were limited, and these studies are all focused on the discrimination between C. auriculatum and C. wilfordii (Moon et al., 2009; Ryuk et al., 2014; Lee et al., 2015). Therefore, establishing an effective method to distinguish the herbal materials from Cynanchum systematically is necessary to avoid incorrect prescriptions. DNA barcoding is a convenient, accurate, and rapid tool to identify species by using a short fragment of the genomic sequence. This tool has aroused great concern (Gregory, 2005; Schindel and Miller, 2005; Miller, 2007) since it was first proposed by Canadian zoologist Paul Hebert in 2003 (Hebert et al., 2003). DNA barcoding is a reliable technique to authenticate species on the basis of DNA sequences and is thus not influenced by factors such as the morphological characteristics, plant parts, and age of samples. Hence, this technique allows non-experts to identify an unknown species without professional taxonomic knowledge. Recently, DNA barcoding has been broadly recognized and widely applied in the discrimination of plants. Kress et al. (2005) recommended the nuclear internal transcribed spacer region and the plastid trnH-psbA intergenic spacer as potential barcodes for flowering plants. Lahaye et al. (2008) analyzed more than 1,600 samples and suggested a portion of the plastid matK gene could be a universal DNA barcode for flowering plants. Then, CBOL Plant Working Group (2009) proposed the 2-locus combination of rbcL + matK as the barcode for land plants. In 2010, Chen et al. (2010) identified more than 6,600 samples obtained from 4,800 species in 753 genera with 92.7% identification rate by using internal transcribed spacer 2 (ITS2) and suggested ITS2 to be a novel barcode for medicinal plants. Subsequently, China Plant BOL Group (2011) assessed the effectiveness and universality of four markers (rbcL, matK, trnH-psbA, and ITS) in 1,757 species of 141 genera and proposed that ITS/ITS2 should be incorporated into the core barcode for seed plants. In accordance with the proposal of China Plant BOL Group, nrDNA ITS was suggested as a potential barcode for plant species in Hollingsworth’s research as well (Hollingsworth, 2011). Furthermore, Pang et al. (2011) showed that ITS2 is superior in species identification than the three other DNA barcodes (rbcL, matK, and rpoC1) for the Rosaceae family. Selvaraj et al. (2015) also suggested nuclear ITS2 as an ideal barcode loci to identify the large plant family Apocynaceae with an accurate identification rate of 91% at the species level. Currently, researchers have broadened the application of the ITS2 region to the authentication of herbal materials. Founded on the numerous experiments and research, a publically available ITS2-based DNA barcoding system has been established to identify herbal materials (Chen et al., 2014). Zhao et al. (2015) indicated that ITS2 is an efficient tool to identify Acanthopanacis cortex and its adulterants. Moreover, Michel et al. (2016) found that ITS2 is a practical DNA barcode to authenticate herbal medicines sold in the New York City. Furthermore, Chen et al. (2017) developed a standardized barcode identification system for crude drugs in the Japanese pharmacopeia and again proved the identification capability of the ITS2 barcode. In the present study, we used the ITS2 barcode to discriminate medicinal species in Cynanchum and survey the authenticity of commonly used herbal materials in the medicine market to ensure their clinical safety and protect consumer interests.

Materials and Methods

Plant Materials

In this study, the capacity of the ITS2 barcode to identify medicinal species in Cynanchum was evaluated using 87 sequences representing 17 species of Cynanchum, from 33 vouchers collected in this study and 54 accessions downloaded from NCBI GenBank. All of the corresponding voucher samples were deposited in the Herbarium of the Institute of Medicinal Plant Development, Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, Beijing, China. Moreover, 64 commercial crude drug samples from the three herbs (Cynanchi Paniculati Radix et Rhizoma, Cynanchi Stauntonii Rhizoma et Radix, and Cynanchi Atrati Radix et Rhizoma) recorded in the Chinese Pharmacopoeia were collected in herbal markets, hospitals, drug stores, and online shops from 12 provinces and municipalities in China to investigate their authenticity. Detailed information of the commercial samples is shown in Table 2. The crude drug samples were tested using a standard DNA barcoding database on the basis of the above 87 samples.

DNA Extraction, Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) Amplification, and Sequencing

The surface of all herbal materials was cleaned with 75% ethanol to avoid fungal DNA contamination. About 60 mg of the materials were cut into pieces, added with 10% polyvinylpyrrolidone (PVP), and then ground with a FastPrep bead mill (Retsch MM400, Germany). The total DNA was extracted with a Plant Genome DNA Kit (Tiangen Biotech Co., China) in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. The ITS2 sequences were amplified using universal primers ITS-S2F (5′-ATGCGATACTTGGTGTGAAT-3′) and ITS-S3R (5′-GACGCTTCTCCAGACTACAAT-3′) as previously described (Chen et al., 2010). Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) amplification was performed in a 25 μL reaction mixture containing 12.5 μL of 2 × PCR Master Mix (Aidlab Biotechnologies Co., Ltd.), 1.0 μL of each primer (2.5 μM), 2 μL (about 30 ng) of DNA templates, and filled with double-distilled water. The reactions were performed with the following thermal program: 94°C for 5 min and 40 cycles of 94°C for 30 s, 56°C for 30 s, and 72°C for 45 s, followed by 72°C for 10 min. The PCR products were sequenced by the Major Engineering laboratory of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (Beijing, China).

Data Analysis

The original sequences of all 87 samples were assembled using CodonCode Aligner V5.2.0 (CodonCode Co., USA). The assembled sequences were annotated and trimmed to obtain the complete ITS2 region based on a hidden Markov model (Keller et al., 2009). All the ITS2 sequences obtained were aligned using MEGA 6.0. The genetic distances were calculated based on the Kimura 2-parameter (K2P) model using MEGA 6.0 (Tamura et al., 2013) to evaluate inter-specific and intra-specific variations. The average inter-specific distance, minimum inter-specific distance, and average theta prime were calculated to evaluate the inter-specific divergences using the K2P model. The average intra-specific distance, coalescent depth, and theta were used to represent the intra-specific variation based on the K2P model (Meyer and Paulay, 2005; Chen et al., 2010). BLAST1 and the nearest distance methods were both used to evaluate the species authentication efficacy (Ross et al., 2008). Neighbor-joining (NJ) tree and maximum-likelihood (ML) tree were constructed with MEGA 6.0 (Tamura et al., 2013) and performed with 1,000 bootstrap replicates. Moreover, Sequencher 5.0 software (Gene Codes Co., USA) was used to detect single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs)…

Source: Frontiers

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