The active, therapeutic phytochemicals in the Panax spp. appear to be ginsenosides that consist of an aglycone base structure and glycosides (sugar molecules). These compounds can be referred to as triterpene glycosides, triterpene saponins and steroid saponins. The varied nomenclature comes from the multiple ways of defining the molecule. Saponins froth when shaken. And from the image below, ginsenoside aglycones contain a steroid backbone. Based on the numbers of carbons they can also be classified as a triterpene.
So what role do these phytochemicals they play on the plants behalf? Saponins as class have anti-fungal properties and may act allelopathically (Carter et al., 1999). The sterol portion of the molecule appears to be inserted into and disrupt fungal membrane integrity by interacting with fungal sterols present.
Nicole et al. (2002) noted that American ginseng saponins inhibit in vitro growth of the fungus Trichoderma spp., but stimulate growth of Cylindrocarpon destructans.
In a followup study to investigate the concentration of ginsensosides in rhizosphere, Nicol et al. (2003) collected ginsenosides from root associated soil several times between 1999-2002. They found that the concentration in the soil ranged 0.02 – 0.098%. They also collected root exudate from pot-grown ginseng over 22 days, using an exudate trapping system, which yielded a concentration of 0.6% ginsenosides. We need to test whether this soil concentration level can be considered an active allelopathic level.
Additional evidence supporting the sterol disruption hypothesis can be found in the Pythiaceous fungi (especially Pythium spp. and Phytophthora spp.) that lack sterols in their cell walls. Growth of these fungi appear to be stimulated by both the presence of fungal sterols (ergosterol) and ginsenosides in the medium of in vitro studies. The authors suggested potential mechanisms include:
- provide a carbon sink for the fungus.
- alter fungal membranes in a positive manner.
- act as a fungal growth hormone.
Future studies should look at the ratio of ginsensosides and their respective influence on fungi.
- Carter, JP, Spink, J, Cannon, PF, Daniels, and Osbourn, AE. (1999) Isolation, Characterization, and Avenacin Sensitivity of a Diverse Collection of Cereal-Root- Colonizing Fungi.AppliedandEnvironmentalMicrobiology. 65(8): 3364–3372.
- Nicol, RW, Traquair, JA and , Bernards, MA. (2002) Ginsenosides as host resistance factors in American ginseng (Panaxquinquefolius).CanadianJournalofBotany. 80(5): 557-562.
- Nicol RW, Yousef L, Traquair JA, and Bernards MA. (2003) Ginsenosides stimulate the growth of soilborne pathogens of American ginseng.Phytochemistry. 64(1):257-64.