National Treasure: Study Unveils Promising Therapeutic Properties in Bunga Simpur Genome

Researchers from the Institute for Biodiversity and Environmental Research (IBER) and the Faculty of Science (FOS), Universiti Brunei Darussalam (UBD) have successfully mapped the world’s first genome of Bunga Simpur (Dillenia suffruticosa), Brunei Darussalam’s national flower.

This study was conducted in collaboration with researchers from SingHealth Duke-NUS Institute of Biodiversity Medicine (BD-MED), Singapore, which last year have mapped the genome of the national flower of Singapore, Papilionanthe Miss Joaquim. The study findings of Bunga Simpur were presented to His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien, Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam, Chancellor of UBD during the 35th UBD convocation ceremony on 21st August 2023.

In Brunei’s secondary or cleared forests, Simpur Bini (Dillenia suffruticosa) stands out for its large penni-veined leaves, bright yellow flowers, and pink star-shaped fruits. This species is significant in Brunei Darussalam’s local culture and the regional forest ecosystem.

Traditionally, the plant’s robust leaves have been used to ferment culinary staples such as rice, creating the dish known as ‘tapai’, and soybeans to create ‘tempeh’. Beyond their culinary uses, these leaves have long been a natural remedy in the local populace’s repertoire, used for healing minor cuts, reducing inflammation, and providing relief from itching, demonstrating the broad scope of its therapeutic value.

The researchers from both institutes extracted DNA from Bunga Simpur which was grown in the gardens of the UBD Botanical Research Centre (BRC). Using genomic sequencing technologies and data analytics the genome of Bunga Simpur was pieced together. The genome was found to be 596Mb in size and contains 34,195 genes. In comparison to the human genome, the size is 5 times smaller but with 1.5 times more genes.

The researchers also found clues that the Bunga Simpur genome contains instructions for producing organic compounds with therapeutic properties. Chemical profiling of the Bunga Simpur extracts using mass spectrometry was found to be abundant in terpenoid (organic chemicals with potential medicinal properties) and flavonoid (organic chemicals with a variety of health benefits) compounds, some of which have previously shown therapeutic properties with promising anticancer activities on cancer cell lines.

Biodiversity research is one of the main research thrusts in UBD and IBER functions as the focal agency in UBD for the systematic organisation and enhancement of biodiversity and environmental knowledge through its research, education and outreach programmes. The main focus areas under IBER include research conducted under the IBER permanent plots network, research in tropical ecology, biodiversity and conservation, ecosystem studies and applied research. It is through the various research activities that IBER is guiding the restoration and conservation strategies of these valuable biodiversity assets in line with Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

UBD has provided significant support for researchers to conduct studies on biodiversity and environmental research with both local and international institutions and organisations. IBER is currently collaborating with BD-MED on several research projects related to biodiversity genomics with an aim towards understanding the genomic profile of the flora and fauna of Brunei.  Bunga Simpur is one of many species of Brunei’s unique flora that IBER aims to investigate and expand for future research. From the current findings of the Bunga Simpur genome, the collaborative research team plans to further the study to expand and evaluate the therapeutic compounds found in it. This project is also conducted in collaboration with Brunei Forestry Department, Ministry of Primary Resources and Tourism (MPRT)and supported by Brunei Darussalam’s Department of Agriculture and Agrifood, MPRT.

During the 35th UBD Convocation Ceremony, the research team from UBD and BD-MED, Singapore also presented artworks of the national flower of Brunei Darussalam and Singapore as a gift to His Majesty.

UBD has a long history of biodiversity research dating back to the days of its establishment in 1985. This was further developed in the early 1990s with the establishment of a field research centre, the Kuala Belalong Field Studies Centre (KBFSC) in the Ulu Temburong National Park. Since then, KBFSC has gained local and international recognition as a centre for tropical rainforest research and education globally. As biodiversity and environmental research became the university’s research strength, IBER was established in 2013 to further develop and expand prospects and international collaborations in biodiversity research and education. The institute’s establishment was officially announced by His Majesty in 2013. KBFSC is now managed as the premier international research and educational facility under IBER.

The establishment of the UBD BRC in 2018 has further strengthened UBD and IBER’s research and education activities into Brunei Darussalam’s botanical diversity. UBD BRC is focused on the conservation of Brunei’s flora, especially rare and threatened species. As a botanic garden, UBD BRC’s strengths are its living collection involving in-situ conservation of native Kerangas forest on UBD campus, ex-situ conservation of endangered species, botanical and taxonomical research, physiological and biochemical research as well as environmental education and public engagement. UBD BRC covers over five hectares within the UBD campus and most of the area is still covered with native forest. The green house has approximately 250 species of plants, mainly represented by herbaceous species commonly used by herbalists for medicinal purposes or as ornamental plants. The forested area in the garden has approximately 150 species where most of the species in the living collections in UBD BRC are species that are typically found in Brunei forests representing rare and endangered species.

The SingHealth Duke-NUS Institute of Biodiversity Medicine (BD-MED) is a joint initiative by Singapore Health Service and Duke-NUS Medical School. It was launched in 2021 by the Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore, Heng Swee Keat. BD-MED focuses on three signature research programmes underpinned by strategic partnerships with local and regional scientific, innovation and environmental agencies. The Herbal Biodiversity and Medicine programme uses innovative technologies to extract and study plant components with promising nutraceutical benefits to fight common diseases. This includes identifying novel phytochemical and their biosynthetic pathways for drug discovery and complementary therapeutics. The Food Biodiversity and Nutrition programme investigates and generates new knowledge and technologies in plant-based biodiversity to find sustainable solutions that strengthen local and regional food security. The Urban Biodiversity and Wellness programme studies how natural flora and their biodiversity enhances our living environment and have “healing” effects that improve mental health and wellness. This includes studying plant components that make up their biology, appearance, colour and smell and examining their applications on health.

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