Diosgenin Production in North America

A Brief History

in HortTechnology
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  • 1 Consultant in tropical agriculture (retired). 40 Palmer Avenue, Winter Park, FL 32789.

Diosgenin is a steroidal aglycone occurring in certain species of Dioscorea native principally to eastern Mexico. In the 1940s, diosgenin became a much-sought-after intermediate for the chemical synthesis of certain corticosteroids and structurally related fertility regulants. Various difficulties of access to native sources led to attempts at plantation production. One of these, supported by the Upjohn Company between 1962 and 1980, was located on the Pacific coast of Guatemala and is described herein from the standpoint of technology development. The Dioscorea plant produces a long, coarse vine that requires support. The deep-growing, fleshy rhizome contains the diosgenin and, at harvest, must be removed from soil depths up to 1 m. Dry rhizome yield depends on supply of readily available (low-tension) soil water. Sites located over abundant water reserves give satisfactory rhizome yields, but diosgenin concentrations fall to uneconomically low levels under such circumstances. By 1980, diosgenin had been displaced by two products of soya oil processing, stigmasterol and sitosterol, which became available as a result of advances in microbial fermentation technology. Consequently, the cultivation of Dioscorea was abandoned.

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