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Alfalfa research expands to honey

March 27, 2024

People have used honey for thousands of years as a medical treatment. A new project at Dakota State University shows why honey is useful to treat infections on a molecular basis by looking at honey produced by bees that gather nectar from alfalfa and its antimicrobial properties. 

Denyce Bravo, a senior Biology major from the Philippines, was interested in a research project about bees, but also enjoyed aspects of microbiology.

“I learned that alfalfa also produces honey, so I decided to do something with alfalfa since it’s such a big part of agriculture in South Dakota,” Bravo said. DSU students have been researching various properties of alfalfa for four years.

Dr. Andrew Sathoff, Assistant Professor of Biology, is serving as Bravo’s mentor on the project and is enjoying the expanding alfalfa research.

The two collaborated with DSU Art Professor Alan Montgomery, a hobby beekeeper. Montgomery used alfalfa for his bees and provided the honey for testing and research.

“I impregnate a small filter with honey in different concentrations, and then I let it grow with the bacteria,” Bravo explained.

“This is a standard antimicrobial activity,” Sathoff explained. “You blot honey on a filter paper disk and then see if the honey kills the bacteria.”

Bravo found that E.coli and Staphylococcus aureus are susceptible to honey inhibiting around 30% of bacterial growth.

“It works against both human and plant pathogens,” Sathoff said. “So, it’s providing broad spectrum activity.”

Bravo also tested Manuka honey, a type of honey from New Zealand and Australia that is sometimes used in hospitals for wound and burn healing. By testing the Manuka honey, Bravo showed that alfalfa honey had similar antimicrobial activity.

The research showed that proteins in honey attack bacteria, and the hydrogen peroxide in honey also functions as the main antimicrobial agent.

While she found that alfalfa honey has antimicrobial activity against human pathogens, she found lower antimicrobial activity against plant pathogens.

“Currently, Bravo is testing the antimicrobial activity of bee defensin-1, which is a bee peptide found in honey,” Sathoff explained. “Defensins are known to have broad spectrum antimicrobial activity against bacteria and fungi.”

Bravo will attend the American Society of Microbiology Conference in Atlanta with Sathoff this summer to share her research results. After graduation, she plans to attend medical school.

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