Extracts from these plants are commonly used to stimulate the immune system, alleviate cold and flu symptoms and boost energy levels.
"During winter many people will take herbal medicines to fight off colds and flu. There is an increasing demand for traditional sources of some popular medicinal herbs. Some of these plants grow very slowly and demand is greater than supply," says Dr Philip Franks, leader of the Food Science Australia's biotechnology research.
Food Science Australia's scientists and collaborators in the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Bioproducts are researching hairy root cultures as a source of large quantities of the plant extracts that are otherwise expensive or difficult to source.
Hairy roots are named after the shape of the very fine roots that can be formed by plants that are infected by certain bacteria. Scientists are investigating ways to use this natural process to produce cheaper ingredients for herbal medicines.
Scientists are already able to produce valuable products from plant cells. Hairy root cultures are believed to offer particular advantages.
To be commercially viable the tissue culture must grow rapidly and in large quantities. Scientists aim to grow the hairy roots in a 10,000-litre fermentation tank.
"The challenges faced by our researchers are to encourage rapid growth of the plant material and to stimulate them to produce the active component."
Food Science Australia's scientists and collaborators in the CRC for Bioproducts are leaders in cell culture technology and are exploring applications in food and medicinal applications.
Food Science Australia is the largest Australian food research organisation and a joint venture of CSIRO and the Australian Food Industry Science Centre (Afisc).
This research has been on display at Bio 2002, the world's largest conference and exhibition of biotechnology.