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Friday, April 18, 2014

Is This a Miracle Tree? Not Really – It’s Just the Result of Amazing Design!

Posted by jlwile on February 24, 2012

This is the fruit of the Moringa tree, which earns it the nickname drumstick tree. (Click for credit)

Moringa oleifera (commonly called the “drumstick tree”) is probably one of the most useful plants on earth. It’s leaves and flowers are eaten in many parts of the world. When its fruit is still developing, it can be cooked in a variety of ways. Even its roots can be eaten. These parts of the tree are rich in iron, minerals, proteins, and vitamins B and C. Its seeds produce an oil that can be used for both cooking and lubrication, and to top it all off, the tree is very hardy. It withstands significant droughts, making it easy to grow and maintain. Finally, unlike many trees, it matures very quickly. It usually bears fruit during its first year of growth, which means it can be used as a very productive crop.1 It’s no wonder that some sources call it “the miracle tree.”

It seems that the usefulness of the drumstick tree doesn’t end there, however. Back in 1987, Madsen and colleagues found that if you crushed the seeds of the drumstick tree into muddy water, the water would not only clear up, but it would also be free of most of the bacteria that were originally there.2 As a result, they suggested that the seeds of the drumstick tree could be used to purify water in third-world countries where no other means of water purification existed. Since drinking bacteria-laden water is a leading cause of death in many third-world countries, this could be a major benefit in many parts of the world. Unfortunately, carrying around the seeds and crushing them into water is fairly inefficient if you want to clean water on a large scale.

Eventually, the “active ingredient” that produces the water-purifying properties of the drumstick tree was identified. It turned out to be a series of proteins that are fairly small (as proteins go, in any case) and have a strong, positive charge.3 These proteins were dubbed “MOCP,” which stands for “Moringa oleifera coagulant proteins.” In February of 2010, the journal Current Protocols in Microbiology published a step-by-step procedure by which MOCP could be extracted from the seeds of the drumstick tree to make it easier to use.4 All of this represented great progress, but the question still remained: How can we most effectively use MCOP so that it becomes a cheap, efficient means of water purification?

That question might have been answered.

A team of engineers from Pennsylvania State University has recently published a paper in which they added MCOP to negatively-charged sand. Remember, the proteins are positively-charged, so the team assumed that they would bind to the sand, turning it into a “functionalized sand,” which they dubbed “f-sand.” They were correct. When they treated water that was cloudy and full of pathogens with f-sand, they found that the water became significantly more clear and was free of pathogens.5 In the end, then, water purification in many third-world countries might take a giant leap forward now that we know how to efficiently and effectively use the bounty of the drumstick tree.

Now all of this seems like a lot of work. Trees will need to be grown, the MOCP will need to be extracted from the seeds, and then it will have to be added to sand to make f-sand. Why don’t we just make it all from scratch? Because we can’t. Even though we can determine that MOCP is the “active ingredient” for water purification, and even though we can extract it and use it, we can’t make it for ourselves. Why? We haven’t even fully characterized MOCP yet, much less figured out how to make it for ourselves. This quickly-growing tree, however, can make it very easily. This is a common theme in the study of Creation. Time and time again, nature puts our best technology to shame. Everything we can make with all our sophisticated equipment and knowledge looks like primitive child’s play when compared to the marvels of creation!

So is this tree a miracle tree? No. It is simply another example of the amazing design that exists throughout God’s creation. God has engineered for us a planet that meets our needs incredibly well. The more we look to His engineering, the more we will find solutions to the problems that we face.


1. K.V. Peter, Underutilized and Underexploited Horticultural Crops, Volume 4, New India Publishing 2008, pp. 111-112
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2. Madsen, M., Schlundt, J., and Omer, E.F., “Effect of water coagulation by seeds of Moringa oleifera on bacterial concentrations,” Journal of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene, 90:101-109, 1987
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3. H.M. Kwaambwa, and R. Maikoker, “A fluorescence spectroscopic study of a coagulating protein extracted from Moringa Oleifera seeds,” Colloids and surfaces B: Biointerfaces, pp. 1-8, 2007
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4. Michael Lea, “Bioremediation of Turbid Surface Water Using Seed Extract from Moringa oleifera Lam. (Drumstick) Tree,” Current Protocols in Microbiology, 10.1002/9780471729259.mc01g02s16, 2010
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5. Huda A. Jerri, Kristin J. Adolfsen, Lauren R. McCullough, Darrell Velegol, and Stephanie B. Velegol, “Antimicrobial Sand via Adsorption of Cationic Moringa oleifera Protein,” Langmuir, 28:2262–2268, 2011
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6 Responses to “Is This a Miracle Tree? Not Really – It’s Just the Result of Amazing Design!”
  1. Enoch H. says:

    Dr. Wile, Thank you for the article! I’m still unsure as to how exactly these proteins are able to clear the water of impurities. Is it because of their positive charge? If so, wouldn’t adding it to the negatively charged sand neutralize this property? If not the charge, what other properties of this protein cause it to act this way? What happens to the bacteria and impurities? Do they settle to the bottom? Do they get physically or chemically altered? Thanks!

  2. jlwile says:

    Good question, Enoch. The positive charge of the proteins probably plays no role in their ability to clean water. These proteins are called “coagulant proteins” because they tend to strongly bind to a wide range of other proteins. So essentially, these proteins grab on to other proteins, coagulating them out of solution. Since the plasma membranes of bacteria are full of proteins, and since a large amount of the stuff that floats in water is of biological origin and thus contains proteins, the MOCPs essentially just pull bacteria and floating debris out of the water and to themselves. In the case of f-sand, then, if you analyzed the sand after it was used to purify water, you would find lots of bacteria and debris in the sand.

  3. Michael H says:

    Dr. Wile, thanks for the interesting article. It reminds me of the story in Exodus 15:25 when God told Moses to throw a tree into the bitter water to make it sweet. I can’t help but think there might be a possible connection here.

  4. jlwile says:

    Interesting observation, Michael! I read in an old physical chemistry text that the cleansing of the water in that passage of Scripture might have been the result of ion exchange that was facilitated by the cellulose in the wood of the tree. I have no doubt that the tree was important in the process. Perhaps your observations are more pertinent, given what we know about this tree.

  5. W. Brown says:

    Hmm. While that would be reasonable and all, it’s sort of akin to saying that something in the cellulose of Moses’ staff caused water to come out of the rock… Just speculation, but I think that rather than being an early water filter, it probably just had to do with faith. The “If you do what I’m telling you to do, no matter how silly it seems at the time, you’ll be fine.” idea. On the other hand, you may have a point. Some commands DID have practical applications, like when the Hebrews were commanded not to eat pork, which seems silly until one realizes the severity of trichinosis. I’m just not sure if a tree would cure the water for a whole horde of thirsty Israelites? It would make an interesting study.

  6. jlwile says:

    W. Brown, I agree that this is speculation. However, cellulose is known to make a good ion exchange medium. That was the point of the physical chemistry text. Your point is well taken, however. I expect that even if the textbook’s speculation or Michael’s speculation is right, the natural process would probably have to be augmented in order to satisfy the needs of all the wandering Israelites. Thus, even if there was a natural phenomenon at the base of the process, it was probably augmented supernaturally.

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