Traditional herbal medicines adulterated and contaminated with plant materials from the Aristolochiaceae family, which contain aristolochic acids (AAs), cause aristolochic acid nephropathy. Approximately 256 traditional Chinese patent medicines, containing Aristolochiaceous materials, are still being sold in Chinese markets today. In order to protect consumers from health risks due to AAs, the hidden assassins, efficient methods to differentiate Aristolochiaceous herbs from their putative substitutes need to be established. In this study, 158 Aristolochiaceous samples representing 46 species and four genera as well as 131 non-Aristolochiaceous samples representing 33 species, 20 genera and 12 families were analyzed using DNA barcodes based on the ITS2 and psbA-trnH sequences. Aristolochiaceous materials and their non-Aristolochiaceous substitutes were successfully identified using BLAST1, the nearest distance method and the neighbor-joining (NJ) tree. In addition, based on sequence information of ITS2, we developed a Real-Time PCR assay which successfully identified herbal material from the Aristolochiaceae family. Using Ultra High Performance Liquid Chromatography-Mass Spectrometer (UHPLC-HR-MS), we demonstrated that most representatives from the Aristolochiaceae family contain toxic AAs. Therefore, integrated DNA barcodes, Real-Time PCR assays using TaqMan probes and UHPLC-HR-MS system provides an efficient and reliable authentication system to protect consumers from health risks due to the hidden assassins (AAs).
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