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One hundred important questions facing plant science research

As the authors of this recent study state – plant science has never been more important. The growing human population needs abundant safe and nutritious food, shelter, clothes, fibre, and renewable energy, and needs to address the problems generated by climate change, while preserving habitats.

It is believed that these global challenges can only be met in the context of a strong fundamental understanding of plant biology and ecology, and translation of this knowledge into field-based solutions.

While the authors note that plant science is beginning to address these grand challenges, they argue that it is not clear that the full range of challenges facing plant science is known or has been assessed. 

To answer this problem, a 3-month survey was carried out to identify the100 most important questions for plant scientists.

While the full list is provided in the paper, the top 10 questions considered most important to society were identifed as:

  • How do we feed our children’s children?
  • Which crops must be grown and which sacrificed, to feed the billions?
  • When and how can we simultaneously deliver increased yields and reduce the environmental impact of agriculture?
  • What are the best ways to control invasive species including plants, pests and pathogens?
  • Considering two plants obtained for the same trait, one by genetic modification and one by traditional plant breeding techniques, are there differences between those two plants that justify special regulation?
  • How can plants contribute to solving the energy crisis and ameliorating global warming
  • How do plants contribute to the ecosystem services upon which humanity depends?
  • What new scientific approaches will be central to plant biology in the 21st Century?
  • How do we ensure that society appreciates the full importance of plants and how can we attract the best young minds to plant science?
  • How do we ensure that sound science informs policy decisions?

Read the full paper here

One hundred important questions facing plant science research
C. S. Grierson, S. R. Barnes, M. W. Chase, M. Clarke, D. Grierson, K. J. Edwards, G. J. Jellis, J. D. Jones, S. Knapp, G. Oldroyd, G. Poppy, P. Temple, R. Williams, R. Bastow. New Phytologist. Article first published online: 22 AUG 2011

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Fuel costs and carbon footprint of Essential Oil Distillation

Distillation operations using fuel – typically diesel or heavy fuel oil – have seen major price rises over the last few years, and the
signs are that prices are going to remain high, and that further upheavals in the Middle East area have the potential to send them higher still. Even without any consideration of political disturbances, it is clear that global demand has risen, and is continuing to rise, and this is likely to keep prices where they are, or to push them higher still. Fuel costs are a major in distillation costs, and enterprises have to find ways to reduce usage, and/or to change to lower priced fuels. New boilers and
burners can offer significant efficiency savings over old equipment, but important and cost effective benefits can be obtained by
optimising insulation to minimise heat loss, putting in heat recovery systems to make use of waste heat, using simple solar collectors to pre-heat water etc.

As well as trying to minimise fuel usage, enterprises need to consider their carbon footprint, and start to work on strategies to at
least minimise it, and then to start off-setting it. This is starting to become an important factor in the market, and will become increasingly so. It is much better to be a leader in offering carbon neutral product, than to be driven to do it at the end and not have the time to identify and plan for the best way to achieve it. Fuel used is likely to be the major source of carbon
usage, although if crops are grown under intensive systems, with irrigation and high fertilizer inputs, crop production itself may
have a significant carbon footprint, which will also need to be considered. Minimising fuel used in distillation will reduce the carbon
footprint of the enterprise. After that, the strategy changes to off-setting – either through the purchase of carbon credits, or the
generation of credits (such as through registered tree planting schemes). The costs of this are not great, but the beneficial impact
– both to the environment and the business – can be. As an indication, for each 10,000 litres of diesel used in a boiler, around 27
tonnes of CO2 equivalent (tCO2e) is released – so that 27 credits are required to offset it.
Prices of credits vary depending on whether they come from voluntary schemes or formal CDM credit schemes, but at around
US$10/credit, the total offset cost would be US$270 for each 10,000 litres used. Alternatively, tree planting schemes could be
started, to generate credits. Schemes have to run for a certain time – typically 15 years, but it can be shorter – so that they may not be suitable for fuel wood schemes. In the voluntary sector RED credits (for avoided deforestation) can be generated, and
boundary tree planting schemes (around landholdings) are also accepted. Once the carbon credit system is understood – and
frequently there are locally based organisations that have made it their business to understand the system, in East Africa for
example the Uganda Carbon Bureau is a very good first point of contact – an appraisal of the business can identify a range of ways through which carbon usage can be minimised and credits generated to move towards offsetting the carbon footprint.

Enterprises that run wood fired distillation operations – either an open fire or wood fired steam boilers – also have to consider fuel
usage, as the same principles apply as for enterprises using diesel. Wood is becoming scarce, prices are rising, and burning wood is
generating a carbon footprint.

Uganda Carbon Bureau
Plot 47 Lubowa Estate
PO Box 70480
Kampala. Uganda
Tel/fax: +256 (414) 200988
Contact: Bill Farmer, Chairman

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Using wastewater to enhance mint production

When essential oils are extracted from plants through the process of steam distillation, wastewater is produced and subsequently released into rivers and streams. Finding new uses for these unused by-products could benefit essential oil crop growers and processors as well as the environment. A team of researchers has found that the residual distillation water of some aromatic plant species has a beneficial effect on yields and can increase essential oil content of peppermint and spearmint crops.

Peppermint and spearmint are commercially produced for their essential oils, dry leaves used in herbal teas, and as fresh culinary herbs. Essential oils from both mints are widely used in the production of chewing gum, toothpaste, mouthwashes, confectionaries, pharmaceuticals, and aromatherapy products. New methods of improving yield and essential oil content in peppermint and spearmint crops could produce economic benefits for large-scale production operations and create more environmentally sustainable systems.

One previous study of plant distillation wastewater found that wastewater from sage, thyme, and rosemary contained antioxidants and could be used as an ingredient in marinades for turkey meat. We hypothesised that residual distillation water could have an effect on peppermint and spearmint plants when used as a foliar spray,’ said Mississippi State
University professor Valtcho D.

Zheljazkov, corresponding author of a study that tested plant hormones and distillation wastewater on peppermint and spearmint plants. Zheljazkov and colleagues reported on their collaborative research in HortScience. The team evaluated the effects of three plant hormones (methyl jasmonate, gibberellic acid, and salicylic acid) at three concentrations and the Market News Service Essential Oil and Oleoresins residual distillation water from 15 plant species applied as foliar sprays on biomass yields, essential oil content, and essential oil yield of peppermint (Mentha x piperita ‘Black Mitcham’) and spearmint (Mentha spicata ‘Native’).

The application of salicylic acid at 1000 mg/L increased biomass yields of both species. Methyl jasmonate at 100 and 1000 mg/L, gibberellic acid at 10 mg/L, salicylic acid at 10 or 100 mg/L, and distillation water of seven plant species all increased the essential oil content of peppermint, whereas the oil content of spearmint was increased only by distillation water of one plant species.

‘The study demonstrated that the residual distillation water of some aromatic plant species may have an effect on crop species and may be used as a tool for increasing essential oil content or essential oil yields of peppermint and spearmint crops. Further research is needed to elucidate the effect of these treatments on essential oil composition and to verify the effects under field conditions,’ said Zheljazkov.

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The healing power of essential oils

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ESSENTIAL oils are the fragrant, highly concentrated natural constituents that are found in plants. They are what give the plant its characteristic odour and contain the healing power of the plant from which it was extracted. When used correctly, essential oils bring a wide range of health benefits since unlike modern drugs, they have no side-effects.
The most common way in which essential oils enter the body is through the nose and the skin. Oils absorbed through skin pores and hair follicles enter the bloodstream and circulate throughout the body. Because you smell the fragrances as the oil is rubbed on your skin, you can often benefit from both inhalation and the topical administration.
Smells are very important in our lives – they so often trigger memories of events in the past that we had almost forgotten. In addition, smells can initiate different physiological responses that can go so far as to affect our entire body and mental outlook and those healing properties in essential oils include the different smells produced.
How are they extracted?
Mostly, essential oils are obtained by steam distillation although other methods are used. Citrus fruits are cold pressed by mechanical means, and the oil from delicate flowers is obtained by a more sophisticated method that produces what is known as an absolute. This is because delicate flowers can not withstand the high temperatures needed for steam distillation.
After extraction, the resulting essential oil is a highly concentrated liquid that contains the aroma and therapeutic properties of the source from which it came. Nothing should be added or removed from this oil if it is to be used in aromatherapy.
Standardised oils
Some industries process essential oils in order to make them meet a required odour or flavour ‘profile’. To achieve this, synthetic chemicals are added to the oil and often certain unwanted non-fragrance components are removed (rectification). This ‘standardisation’ is common practice in the perfumery and flavour industries in order to maintain absolute consistency in fragrance or taste, but totally unacceptable if the essential oil is for use in aromatherapy. To us, this is adulteration – not standardisation.
Adulterated essential oils may often smell acceptable to the untrained nose, but because they are extended with synthetics or diluted with vegetable oil it makes them extremely poor value for money. Not only that, but if an essential oil has been standardised, adulterated or adjusted in any way it simply will not be effective. Therefore always look for 100 per cent pure essential oils.
The chemistry of an essential oil is extremely complex, and a typical example of oil will contain an elaborate mixture of aromatic constituents such as alcohols, aldehydes, esters, ketones, lactones, phenols, terpenes and sesquiterpenes that combine to produce a unique set of therapeutic qualities.
Health benefits
Essential oils possess a wide range of healing properties that can be used effectively to keep you in the best of health as well as looking good. These health-giving benefits include improving the complexion of your skin by stimulating cellular renewal, balancing roller-coaster emotions and fighting bacteria, fungi and other forms of infection. Essential oils have an almost endless list of therapeutic uses.
Today, aromatherapy (the use of essential oils) is one of the most popular of all complementary therapies, offering a wide range of highly effective treatments to both the acute and chronic stages of illness and disease. At the same time, regular use of aromatherapy treatments and home-use products can help to strengthen the immune system, thereby establishing a preventative approach to overall health.
The healing properties of essential oils are many, varied and extremely effective. The list of plants providing these healing essential oils is almost endless. Here is just a small handful:
Rose – Rejuvenating, relaxing and balancing. The beautiful fragrance of this oil is uplifting and balancing to the emotions making it an especially effective oil to use during the feminine cycle or indeed menopause. Rose oils have a very wide range of uses for both the mind and body.
Cedarwood – Astringent, antiseptic and relaxing. Cedarwood Essential Oil is steam distilled from the wood of the tree, and its strong antiseptic and astringent properties make this oil ideal for teenage and greasy skin. The soft and woody fragrance also makes this a very pleasant oil to use as an inhalation.
Citronella – Uplifting, refreshing and antiseptic. This oil is best known as an effective insect repellent, but it also has antiseptic and stimulating properties. Citronella essential oil has a deodorant action and helps neutralise excessive perspiration.
Clove Bud – Antiseptic, warming and soothing. Not to be confused with the inferior oil extracted from the leaves or stems, Clove Bud essential oil is a powerful antiseptic and fungicide with a rich, sweet and spicy aroma. Like most oils obtained from spices, it has a positive action on the digestive system when used in massage. Also great for toothache.
Eucalyptus – Antiseptic, clearing and stimulating. Traditionally inhaled for relief during a chill or the cold season, Eucalyptus essential oil is obtained from the deep green, sickle shaped leaves of the tree which can sometimes grow up to 200 feet in height. Highly effective in massage blends for muscular fatigue or as a pre-sports rub. Do not use on children under the age of 3 years.
Lavender – Soothing, rejuvenating and antiseptic. Lavender is the most popular of plants for its healing properties. It is a natural analgesic, anti depressant and anti inflammatory agent, while also very relaxing for the mind. Lavender is one of the few essential oils that can be applied directly to the skin undiluted but should never be taken internally.
Lemongrass – Toning, stimulating, and refreshing. Tones and energises tired muscles. Lemongrass essential oil is often used by athletes as a pre-sports rub to enhance performance and help alleviate aches and pains caused by over-training. Lemongrass also makes an excellent insect repellent
Pachouli – Antiseptic, deodorant and sensual. The sweet, musky aroma of Patchouli essential oil is quite unmistakable and is often used as a fixative in oriental perfumes. A highly valued oil when caring for dry, itchy or mature skin.
Peppermint – Cooling, clearing and reviving. The fresh, sharp characteristic fragrance of Peppermint essential oil quickly revives and clears the head, and is an aid to concentration – especially whilst travelling. After a busy day, a few drops in a footbath will soothe and refresh tired, aching feet. Peppermint is a powerful oil and should not be used on children under the age of three.
Tea Tree – Antiseptic and cleansing. A very powerful natural antiseptic and anti-fungal oil, which forms part of every qualified aromatherapists first aid and travel kit. During the cold season, a few drops used in the bath induces sweating. You can also use a few drops to make a gargle or mouthwash. Great also for cleaning wounds and to treat acne (apply directly on pimples).
Ylang Ylang – Sensual, relaxing and balancing. The sweet exotic aroma of Ylang Ylang uplifts the spirit, relaxes the body, and helps put you in the mood for romance (aphrodisiac). This softening skincare oil is suitable for both dry and oily skin conditions
Quick Essential Oil Tips:
When having a BBQ, put a few drops of Citronella essential oil in the coals to keep the bugs away.
If you suffer from fatigue, try carrying round a bottle of Lavender with you. Inhaling straight from the bottle really does help.
After a long hot day add a couple of drops of Peppermint oil to a foot bath to soothe and revive your feet.
Place 2-3 drops of Lemongrass essential oil in your shoes or trainers to neutralise odours.
Add a couple of drops of geranium essential oil to a glass of warm water and gargle to relieve sore throat symptoms. You can do the same with Tea Tree oil (this is a safer option for children who can’t get the hang of gargling).

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Herbal Medicine Week 18th to 26th June

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The National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH) announces Herbal Medicine Week 2011 to take place from 18th to 26th June.

Herbal Medicine Week is an annual event that showcases herbal medicine through a programme of activities open to the general public.  As well as herbal walks (including the very popular walks on Midsummer’s Eve) there are practical workshops, information displays and free drop-in advice clinics. 

The programme is available on-line here

Commenting on this year’s Herbal Medicine Week NIMH President Desiree Shelley said:

“2011 is a momentous year for herbal medicine in the United Kingdom with the government’s announcement in January that medical herbalists will receive statutory regulation as authorised healthcare professionals. It is against this backdrop that NIMH members are organising a cornucopia of events and activities to inform the public about herbs and herbal medicine and stimulate interest in the various ways herbal medicine might be able to help them.  Everyone is welcome to our programme of activities and we look forward to meeting as many people as possible”.

Dee Atkinson, NIMH PR Director also commented:  “There are many misconceptions about herbal medicine, and Herbal Medicine Week is a chance for ordinary people to find out more about this fascinating subject directly from medical practitioners themselves.  To become a recognised medical herbalist NIMH members have to undergo three years university training coupled with Continuing Professional Development.  NIMH members are (very) expert professionals and Herbal Medicine Week represents a rare opportunity to meet them informally in a variety of settings and learn from their expertise.”

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New EU regulations on herbal medicines come into force

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New EU regulations on herbal medicines come into force

Herbal medicines @ New regulations mean many herbal remedies will no longer be available over the counter

New European Union rules have come into force banning hundreds of traditional herbal remedies.

The EU law aims to protect consumers from possible damaging side-effects of over-the-counter herbal medicines.

For the first time, new regulations will allow only long-established and quality-controlled medicines to be sold.

But both herbal remedy practitioners and manufacturers fear they could be forced out of business.

To date, the industry has been covered by the 1968 Medicines Act, drawn up when only a handful of herbal remedies were available and the number of herbal practitioners was very small.

But surveys show that about a quarter of all adults in the UK have used a herbal medicine in the past two years, mostly bought over the counter in health food shops and pharmacies.

The regulations will cover widely used products such as echinacea, St John’s Wort and valerian, as well as traditional Chinese and Indian medicines.

Traditional Herbal Remedy @ Herbal remedies that have been approved for sale under the new regulations will come with this logo

But safety concerns have focused on the powerful effects of some herbal remedies, as well as the way they interact with conventional drugs.

For example, St John’s Wort can interfere with the contraceptive pill, while ginkgo and ginseng are known to have a similar effect to the blood-thinning drug warfarin.

From now on only products that have been assessed by the Medicine and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) will be allowed to go on sale.

Manufacturers will have to prove that their products have been made to strict standards and contain a consistent and clearly marked dose.

And to count as a traditional medicine, products must have been in use for the past 30 years, including 15 years within the EU.

They will also only be approved for minor ailments like coughs and colds, muscular aches and pains, or sleep problems.

Remedies already on sale will be allowed to stay on the shelves until they reach their expiry date.

Free from contamination

Richard Woodfield, head of herbal medicine policy at the MHRA, says so far there have been 211 applications, of which 105 have been granted registration.

“Crucially, this EU directive and the registration scheme puts consumers in the driving seat so they can identify that a product meets assured standards on safety, quality and information about safe use.

“Safety speaks for itself, but quality means, are they using the right part of the plant? Is it free from contamination? Is the claimed shelf life suitable?

“Product information will include possible side effects and interactions with other drugs, but above all it must make very clear that it is based on traditional use.”

And that is a key point for the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, which believes the new regime is a step forward in improving safety and quality.

But Prof Jayne Lawrence, chief science adviser to the society, says there are still some concerns about herbal products.

“They certainly haven’t been tested on the same basis as a conventional medicine and some of these compounds are very potent.

“Patients might not realise that in some cases they should not take other medicines with them, or if they’re going for surgery they should tell their doctors they are taking these particular medicines because there may be complications.

“So we’re very concerned that patients appreciate they must be very careful when they take these medicines and, ideally, should talk to their doctor or pharmacist.”

The manufacturers of herbal remedies have had seven years to prepare for the new rules after the European Directive on Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products was introduced in 2004.

Too onerous?

These regulations apply to over-the-counter sales, which form the bulk of herbal remedies sold in the UK.

But some manufacturers and herbal practitioners have expressed concern, arguing the new rules are too onerous for many small producers.

Michael McIntyre, chairman of the European Herbal and Traditional Medicines Practitioners Association, says there will be a significant impact on herbal medicine practitioners and their suppliers, but admits the rules do need bringing up to date.

“Products that go on the market now will definitely do what it says on the bottle, while we didn’t know how good they were in the past.

“But registration is expensive so perhaps there may be fewer products on the market and a smaller range.

“It’s difficult to argue that the market should stay as it is, without any regulation, but how many businesses will pack up and walk away? I can’t say.”

A Department of Health spokesperson said: “We have swiftly introduced a system to register herbal practitioners using unlicensed herbal medicines, so consumers will be able to continue to use unlicensed herbal medicines if they wish.”

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Essential oils to fight superbugs

Essential oils could be a cheap and effective alternative to antibiotics and potentially used to combat drug-resistant hospital superbugs, according to research presented at the Society for General Microbiology’s spring meeting in Edinburgh this week. Professor Yiannis Samaras and Dr Effimia Eriotou, from the Technological Educational Institute of Ionian Islands, in Greece, who led the research, tested the antimicrobial activity of eight plant essential oils. They found that thyme essential oil was the most effective and was able to almost completely eliminate bacteria within 60 minutes.

The essential oils of thyme and cinnamon were found to be particularly efficient antibacterial agents against a range of Staphylococcus species. Strains of these bacteria are common inhabitants of the skin and some may cause infection in immunocompromised individuals. Drug-resistant strains, such as meticillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) are extremely difficult to treat. “Not only are essential oils a cheap and effective treatment option for antibiotic-resistant strains, but decreased use of antibiotics will help minimise the risk of new strains of antibiotic resistant micro-organisms emerging,” said Professor Samaras.

Essential oils have been recognised for hundreds of years for their therapeutic properties, although very little is still known about how they exert their antimicrobial effects in humans. Australian aborigines used Tea tree oil to treat colds, sore throats, skin infections and insect bites and the remedy was sold commercially as a medicinal antiseptic from the early 20th century. Various scientific studies have demonstrated that essential oils are not only well tolerated, but are effective against a range of bacterial and fungal species. Their therapeutic value has been shown for the treatment of a variety of conditions, including acne, dandruff, head lice and oral infections.

The Greek team believes essential oils could have diverse medical and industrial applications. “The oils – or their active ingredients – could be easily incorporated into antimicrobial creams or gels for external application. In the food industry the impregnation of food packaging with essential oils has already been successfully trialled. They could also be included in food stuffs to replace synthetic chemicals that act as preservatives,” they said.

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Herbal practice gets the green light!

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The National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH) today warmly welcomed the Government’s announcement of the statutory regulation of herbal and traditional medicine practitioners under the Health Professions Council (HPC).  Statutory regulation will ensure the continued supply of herbal medicines to practitioners in compliance with new EU regulations.

Statutory regulation of herbalists has had unequivocal backing from the House of Lords’ Science and Technology Committee as well as two Department of Health Committees. It has been the subject of two public consultations, the last attracting over 6000 responses – by far the majority of which favoured such regulation.

Statutory regulation of this sector will enable regulated herbal practitioners to deliver high quality herbal treatment in conjunction with other health care professionals. The legislation will support safe and professional practice so that the thousands of patients who consult herbalists every year can be assured about the standards of training and practice of the practitioners they see.

Desiree Shelley, President of NIMH said “The Government is to be congratulated on making the right decision to bring in statutory regulation for all those prescribing herbal medicines. Ministers have clearly recognised that this legislation is for patients’ benefit. The National Institute of Medical Herbalists looks forward to working with the Department of Health and Health Professions Council to implement this as soon as possible.”

Link to Dept of Health Consultation Report:

Anne Milton letter to MPs

Written ministerial statement on SR[1]

Essential oils may reduce PMS symptoms

Women who suffer from premenstrual syndrome (PMS) may benefit from taking a combination of essential oils, new research suggests.
Scientists at the Federal University of Pernambuco in Brazil enrolled 120 women in a study which looked at the effectiveness of a pill containing essential oils.
The capsules included a combination of gamma linolenic acid, oleic acid, linoleic acid, other polyunsaturated acids and vitamin E.
Results show that women who took 2g capsules typically reported significant improvements in their symptoms at their three and six-month follow-ups, and there were few complaints of side-effects.
Researcher Edilberto Rocha Filho, whose findings are published in the journal Reproductive Health, commented: ‘The administration of 1 or 2g of essential fatty acids to patients with PMS resulted in a significant decrease in symptom scores.
‘Essential oil capsules can now be said to show much promise as a treatment.’
Nearly all women of child-bearing age have some premenstrual symptoms, which may include fluid retention, abdominal pain, headaches, changes to skin and hair, and weight gain.ADNFCR-554-ID-800345799-ADNFCR

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Essential oils destroy MRSA, Brighton scientists say

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A hospital cleanerThe research may help stop the spread of MRSA in hospitals

Essential oils could kill the hospital superbug MRSA, scientists at the University of Brighton have found.

A study found a blend of oils derived from thyme plants was effective in destroying MRSA in two hours.

The research was carried out by a team of microbiologists at the School of Pharmacy and Biomolecular Sciences.

MRSA is a potentially lethal bug that is difficult to combat because it has developed resistance to some antibiotics.

The study was set up when Sussex-based company Benchmark Oils asked the university to carry out research into the effect of its oils.

‘Promising results’

Director Maggie Tisserand got in touch because she believed a blend of essential oils derived from thyme and used in aromatherapy could tackle MRSA.

Dr Jonathan Caplin, who carried out much of the research, said: “These are very promising results.

“We have shown at least in the laboratory that this blend of thyme has a very strong killing-effect on MRSA.

“Now further work needs to be carried out to ascertain its effect in real cases.”

The research has been published in the International Journal of Essential Oil Therapeutics.

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