SIOUX CITY, Iowa — For the not so many people who have consumed them, Psoralea esculenta, or prairie turnips, are not considered to be the stuff of fine dining.
But the turnip, which is grown in Siouxland and the upper Great Plains, could have a key role ahead in inhibiting the growth of disease-causing bacteria. Briar Cliff University professors and students are researching medical uses of the turnip, and have seen early good results in inhibiting the growth of the type of bacteria that causes staph infections.
I love the aspect of being part of undergraduate research. ... It is so great that we get this experience so young in our college careers.
— Olivia Matz '19, student researcher
Briar Cliff biology professor Daniel Jung and chemistry professor Paul Weber are providing guidance, as students Avery Sitzman, Olivia Matz and Abby Furlich have been performing weekly tests on extracts from turnip rinds. Essentially, they are trying to see if prairie turnips can zero in on negative forms of bacteria, while keeping the good forms that could benefit people.
"What we are doing now is the basic research," Jung said. "There is a long way to go, let's say, to make a pill or a cream. There are many hurdles to go over," Jung said.
Matz, a sophomore from Des Moines, said only upperclassmen could handle such research in large universities, so it is pleasing to be at Briar Cliff.
"I love the aspect of being part of undergraduate research," Matz said. "It is so great that we get this experience so young in our college careers."
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who traveled through the area that today is Sioux City while leading the early 19th century expedition that opened up the western United States, noticed prairie turnips were a staple of Native American tribes' diets. Now BCU is aiming to see if modern science can pinpoint definable benefits from the turnip.
The professors and student Chad Heying presented their initial findings last year at the Iowa Academy of Science conference. The professors and Sitzman, Furlich and Matz followed that up with more thorough research toward defining the antioxidant and pathogen-fighting qualities of the prairie turnip. The Briar Cliff crew will present their newest findings at this year’s Iowa Academy of Science conference, April 21-22, at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.
The idea for the turnips came jointly from Weber and Jung. Jung said the turnip can protect itself from soil bacteria, so he wondered if the turnip would have other anti-bacterial benefits. Jung was initially skeptical, until the first testing in July 2015.