Since the 1980’s, increasing globalization has led to a rise in fungal infections. Most fungal infections are treated with drugs called azoles, but this treatment poses problems: azoles can be toxic to the treated patients, and several fungal pathogens have developed resistances against azoles making the development of novel treatments necessary.
Between the 16th and 19th century, Vanilla orchids have been used as medicinal plant in South America, Africa and Europe, to treat a range of diseases. Natural vanilla is extracted from Vanilla beans and contains approximately 200 compounds in a complex mixture, the most important flavour component being vanillin. Interestingly, vanillin was found to have antimicrobial, antioxidant as well as antifungal properties.
In my Master’s project I developed a molecular phylogeny of different Vanilla species to obtain scientific proof for the medicinal use of Vanilla orchids. We hypothesized that a cluster of medicinally used Vanilla species in one clade would imply that medicinal use was based on folk belief, while a scattered distribution across different clades would indicate that medicinal properties were discovered multiple times independently. In addition, I tested natural Vanilla extracts for their antifungal properties against Candida albicans and Trichophyton rubrum, two fungal pathogens causing skin infections.