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Academics are worried the health properties of Alaska's berries could be lost
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The struggle to save Alaska's 'illness-busting' wild berries

Jessica Wapner

7th September, 2011

Despite being used to treat diabetes and infections, knowledge of Alaska's wild berries is in danger of being lost as young indigenous people embrace western lifestyles. Jessica Wapner reports

In the remote whaling village of Point Hope, Alaska, the tundra is carpeted with wild berries during the brief but potent summer. For centuries, berry picking has been a galvanising event for this 850-person community. Family members will drop everything, pack a picnic lunch and head out in their all-terrain vehicles to the gently sloping hillsides, where the tiny berries sweeten an otherwise vacant landscape. The berries, which include blueberries, salmon berries and mossberries, are used to treat diabetes and infections.

But in recent years a rift has been growing between the generations. The elders of the native Inupiaq tribe are holding fast to their traditions, while the younger set gravitates toward modern culture. As the elders die without passing on vital knowledge about their history and their land to the next generation, that next generation is increasingly experiencing the ills of western culture, with diabetes and cancer both on the rise - paradoxically the extroadinary health benefits of the berries are in danger of being lost.

A unique science education program is aiming to change all this; the venture is teaching the younger Inupiaqs the value of this precious, natural, commodity.

Like so many radically new endeavours, the program began with a conversation—on this occasion, between a scientist and a sociologist. The scientist is Mary Ann Lila, a world-renowned berry researcher who now directs the Plants for Human Health Institute at North Carolina State University, but was formerly a professor of nutrition at the University of Illinois, where Courtney Flint, a rural sociologist, holds a professorship.

Lila, whose work has revealed the mechanisms behind the extraordinary health benefits of wild berries in several locations worldwide, was interested in exploring Alaska’s bounty. Flint, who had spent time in Alaska as a child, was intrigued by the rural community’s relationship to this prized resource. ‘We seemed an odd fit,’ says Flint, ‘but the more we talked, the more we realised the opportunity to look at the human dimensions as well as the science.’ The two became a team, funded by a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. They made their first trip to Point Hope in 2007.

Consultation

In an unexpected move for rigorous scientists, the team spent hours talking with the locals before stepping foot into the bush. ‘They didn’t want to be one more group of people coming through to take the money and run,’ says Marlene Beam, assistant principal at Point Hope’s public school, of the research team. Lila, Flint, and their accompanying researchers held town meeting after town meeting, always including children, a directive from community leaders stemming from the wish to ‘connect children with traditional knowledge,’ says Flint, ‘[and their] recognition that students need to understand science.’

The introduction became the starting point for a powerful educational experience, and the work continued to be laced with learning. Local students eight years and older were dispatched to conduct interviews with their elders about the wild berries, a task that not only helped break the ice for the scientists but also turned the young people into researchers overnight. Workshops at the local school gave young and old locals a crash-course in ‘screens-to-nature’ (STN) field research using hand-held devices to collect and analyse berry samples.

Josh Kellogg, a researcher with Lila’s lab at the University of Illinois, taught tribal members how to do the assays and how to collect plants using a GPS unit so that their exact location could be recorded and revisited. Against the backdrop of a horizon combed with the arches of whale-rib funerary shrines and shaded with the occasional dip of an ancient Inupiaq underground house, scientists and locals then worked together to collect and test the berries.

Heritage

For native Alaskans, the importance of wild berries extends far beyond physical sustenance. ‘It’s part of their heritage and traditional values,’ says Flint. An integral part of the cultural practice of sharing and experiencing the outdoors, the berries have come to represent the best aspects of native, rural life. ‘When the berries are ripe, everything comes to a stop,’ says Flint, who recalls the challenge of even finding anyone to interview during their first visit, which took place smack in the middle of berry-picking season.

Traditional knowledge about the health benefits of the local berries—which include blueberries, the pinkish-colored salmonberries, and the blackberry-like mossberries—is also deeply seated. Virtually the only edible land plants in Point Hope, a desolate place located north of the Arctic Circle, berries have been used to treat diabetes and infections, and to promote general good health.

But the younger generation has grown increasingly skeptical of traditional knowledge about the nutritional value of wild berries. ‘The people who have thrived in this environment [for thousands of years] have had their own educational system,’ says Gary Ferguson, an Anchorage-based medical doctor focused on naturopathy. ‘At the same time, we’re in a new world of information, and just because grandpa or grandma said it isn’t enough for some young people.’

So it made sense to focus the Point Hope STNs on diabetes and metabolic syndrome, a precursor to diabetes, both of which are on the rise in the area. ‘There are low rates of prevalence [for diabetes] but the increase over the past 10 years has been huge,’ says Ferguson, who sees the incidence rate to be directly tied to the increased presence of processed foods. ‘With embracing a Western diet come changes in chronic disease,’ he says. Accompanying psychological ills have also been on the rise. ‘Diabetes and pre-diabetes have marked depression that goes along with them,’ says Ferguson, an Aleutian Islands native. 

Still, Lila and her team found it hard to pique the interest of the local teens and twenty-somethings. Initially, their attention span for learning about field-deployable assays was no different than that for reading a textbook. That is, until the results came in.

Bioactive

To test berries for their bioactive component in the field, samples are crushed with a portable drill and mixed with ethanol. Because they’re so juicy, a wealth of information can be obtained from just 2 grams of berries. With just a few minutes of steeping, the alcohol draws out the bioactive components. Later, gathered in a circle in the schoolhouse, everyone watches as drops fall from pipettes onto the testing screens. With deepening shades of color correlating with increased levels of a given chemical—in this case antioxidants—the litmus-like assays reveal whether science can confirm traditional knowledge.

And it was in that moment—the colorimetric assay growing increasingly dark, indicating high levels of powerful antioxidants—that the local youth became enraptured with the science. ‘As the plants that their grandmothers have always used are getting all these positive hits, the teenagers are drawing closer and closer to the center of the circle,’ says Lila. ‘That was the a-ha moment for me: it’s not just a science tool, it’s a teaching tool.’ 

The science itself has yielded stunning results. ‘All the berries we screened had medium to high levels of antioxidants,’ says Kellogg. By inhibiting oxidation—a process that sets off a chain reaction that can damage or kill otherwise healthy cells—antioxidants may help prevent or treat a wide range of diseases, including stroke and cancer. The assays also showed that the berries contained compounds that inhibit glucosidase, an enzyme that breaks down starch to sugar. ‘If you can slow down [glucosidase activity], that could possibly delay the onset of diabetes,’ says Kellogg. 

The bridge created by the STN program has enabled the younger generation to cross back over to their native roots. Such ‘place-based education,’ as Marlene Beam explains, has had a deep impact on the students, both academically and personally. Beam recalls one student, struggling at home and at school, whose life was transformed by the STN program. ‘In a life full of negativity, you could see her becoming a better person because of the research,’ says Beam.

Cultivating youth

The work has likewise changed the researchers. ‘The potential for youth to contribute to science and knowledge is fundamental,’ says Flint, who was given an Inupiaq name (Akpiq, meaning salmonberry) by a tribal elder in recognition of her dedication to the community. ‘I don’t think I ever appreciated that before.’ Flint now plans to incorporate youth into all future research projects.

The repercussions of this mutual transformation, among the local youth and the scientists, could extend far beyond the funded research. As Lila explains, the high antioxidant levels are the berry’s way of coping with environmental stresses, such as the long stretches of direct sunlight present during the growing season. Climate change threatens to diminish that stress, a shift that could—later, if not sooner—result in reduced bioactivity.

Despite the substantial research findings, the purpose of the initial EPA grant was only for methods development, and additional money has been hard to come by. As the elders holding the traditional knowledge pass away, it will be up to the young people to fight for the preservation of their land, an effort that will only happen if they stay connected to their roots. And in this most surprising turn of events, modern science appears to have done just that.

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