- Alphalpha leads here. For other uses of the word, see Alphalpha (disambiguation)
Alfalfa (pron.: //), Medicago sativa, also called lucerne, is a perennial flowering plant in the pea family Fabaceae cultivated as an important forage crop in many countries around the world. The English name alfalfa is widely used, particularly in North America. But in the UK, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, the more commonly used name is lucerne. It superficially resembles clover, with clusters of small purple flowers followed by fruits spiralled in 2 to 3 turns containing 10-20 seeds. Alfalfa is native to a warmer temperate climate such as that of Iran (where it is thought to have originated). It has been cultivated as livestock fodder since at least the era of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Alfalfa is a perennial forage legume which normally lives 4–8 years, but can live more than twenty years, depending on variety and climate. The plant grows to a height of up to 1 meter (3 ft), and has a deep root system, sometimes stretching more than 15 meters (49 ft). This makes it very resilient, especially to droughts. It has a tetraploid genome.
Alfalfa is a small seeded crop, and has a slowly growing seedling, but after several months of establishment, forms a tough 'crown' at the top of the root system. This crown contains many shoot buds that enables alfalfa to re-grow many times after being grazed or harvested.
This plant exhibits autotoxicity, which means it is difficult for alfalfa seed to grow in existing stands of alfalfa. Therefore, it is recommended that alfalfa fields be rotated with other species (for example, corn or wheat) before reseeding.
Sprouting Alfalfa seeds is the process of germinating seeds for consumption usually involving just water and a jar. Sprouting Alfalfa usually takes 3–4 days with 1 tablespoon of seed yielding up to 3 full cups of sprouted Alfalfa.
|Nutritional value per 100 g (3.5 oz)|
|Energy||96 kJ (23 kcal)|
|- Dietary fiber||1.9 g|
|Thiamine (vit. B1)||0.076 mg (7%)|
|Riboflavin (vit. B2)||0.126 mg (11%)|
|Niacin (vit. B3)||0.481 mg (3%)|
|Pantothenic acid (B5)||0.563 mg (11%)|
|Vitamin B6||0.034 mg (3%)|
|Folate (vit. B9)||36 μg (9%)|
|Vitamin C||8.2 mg (10%)|
|Vitamin K||30.5 μg (29%)|
|Calcium||32 mg (3%)|
|Iron||0.96 mg (7%)|
|Magnesium||27 mg (8%)|
|Manganese||0.188 mg (9%)|
|Phosphorus||70 mg (10%)|
|Potassium||79 mg (2%)|
|Sodium||6 mg (0%)|
|Zinc||0.92 mg (10%)|
|Link to USDA Database entry
Percentages are relative to
US recommendations for adults.
Source: USDA Nutrient Database
Alfalfa is widely grown throughout the world as forage for cattle, and is most often harvested as hay, but can also be made into silage, grazed, or fed greenchop. Alfalfa usually has the highest feeding value of all common hay crops. It is used less frequently as pasture. When grown on soils where it is well-adapted, alfalfa is often the highest yielding forage plant, but its primary benefit is the combination of high yield per hectare and high nutritional quality.
Its primary use is as feed for high producing dairy cows—because of its high protein content and highly digestible fiber—and secondarily for beef cattle, horses, sheep, and goats. Humans also eat alfalfa sprouts in salads and sandwiches. Dehydrated alfalfa leaf is commercially available as a dietary supplement in several forms, such as tablets, powders and tea. Alfalfa is believed by some to be a galactagogue, a substance that induces lactation. Alfalfa can cause bloating in livestock, care must be taken with livestock grazing on alfalfa because of its high bloat hazard.
Like other legumes, its root nodules contain bacteria, Sinorhizobium meliloti, with the ability to fix nitrogen, producing a high-protein feed regardless of available nitrogen in the soil. Its nitrogen-fixing abilities (which increases soil nitrogen) and its use as an animal feed greatly improve agricultural efficiency.
Alfalfa can be sown in spring or fall, and does best on well-drained soils with a neutral pH of 6.8 – 7.5. Alfalfa requires sustained levels of potassium and phosphorus to grow well. It is moderately sensitive to salt levels in both the soil and irrigation water, although it continues to be grown in the arid southwestern United States, where salinity is an emerging issue. Soils low in fertility should be fertilized with manure or a chemical fertilizer, but correction of pH is particularly important. Usually a seeding rate of 13 – 20 kg/hectare (12 – 25 lb/acre) is recommended, with differences based upon region, soil type, and seeding method. A nurse crop is sometimes used, particularly for spring plantings, to reduce weed problems and soil erosion, but can lead to competition for light, water and nutrients.
In most climates, alfalfa is cut three to four times a year, but it can be harvested up to 12 times per year in Arizona and southern California. Total yields are typically around 8 tonnes per hectare (4 short tons per acre) in temperate environments, but yields have been recorded up to 20 t/ha (16 short tons per acre). Yields vary with region, weather, and the crop's stage of maturity when cut. Later cuttings improve yield, but with reduced nutritional content.
Beneficial insects 
Alfalfa is considered an insectary, a place where insects are reared, and has been proposed as helpful to other crops such as cotton if the two are interplanted, because the alfalfa harbours predatory and parasitic insects that would protect the other crop. Harvesting the alfalfa by mowing the entire crop area destroys the insect population, but this can be avoided by mowing in strips so that part of the growth remains.
Pests and diseases 
Like most plants, alfalfa can be attacked by various pests and pathogens. Diseases often have subtle symptoms which are easily misdiagnosed and can affect leaves, roots and stems.
Some pests, such as alfalfa weevil, aphids, armyworms, and the potato leafhopper, can reduce alfalfa yields dramatically, particularly with the second cutting when weather is warmest. Chemical controls are sometimes used to prevent this. Alfalfa is also susceptible to root rots, including Phytophthora, Rhizoctonia, and Texas root rot.
When alfalfa is to be used as hay, it is usually cut and baled. Loose haystacks are still used in some areas, but bales are easier for use in transportation, storage and feed. Ideally, the first cutting should be taken at the bud stage, and the subsequent cuttings just as the field is beginning to flower, or one tenth bloom for the reason that carbohydrates are at their highest. When using farm equipment rather than hand-harvesting, a swather cuts the alfalfa and arranges it in windrows. In areas where the alfalfa does not immediately dry out on its own, a machine known as a mower-conditioner is used to cut the hay. The mower-conditioner has a set of rollers or flails that crimp and break the stems as they pass through the mower, making the alfalfa dry faster. After the alfalfa has dried, a tractor pulling a baler collects the hay into bales.
There are several types of bales commonly used for alfalfa. For small animals and individual horses, the alfalfa is baled into small two-string bales, commonly named by the strands of string used to wrap it. Other bale sizes are three-string, and so on up to half-ton (six-string) "square" bales – actually rectangular, and typically about 40 x 45 x 100 cm (14 in x 18 in x 38 in). Small square bales weigh from 25 – 30 kg (50 – 70 pounds) depending on moisture, and can be easily hand separated into "flakes". Cattle ranches use large round bales, typically 1.4 to 1.8 m (4 to 6 feet) in diameter and weighing from 500 to 1,000 kg, (1000 to 2000 lbs). These bales can be placed in stable stacks or in large feeders for herds of horses, or unrolled on the ground for large herds of cattle. The bales can be loaded and stacked with a tractor using a spike, known as a bale spear, that pierces the center of the bale, or they can be handled with a grapple (claw) on the tractor's front-end loader. A more recent innovation is large "square" bales, roughly the same proportions as the small squares, but much larger. The bale size was set so stacks would fit perfectly on a large flatbed truck. These are more common in the western United States.
When used as feed for dairy cattle, alfalfa is often made into haylage by a process known as ensiling. Rather than drying it to make dry hay, the alfalfa is chopped finely and fermented in silos, trenches, or bags, anywhere the oxygen supply can be limited to promote fermentation.[dead link] The anaerobic fermentation of alfalfa allows it to retain high nutrient levels similar to those of fresh forage, and is also more palatable to dairy cattle than dry hay. In many cases, alfalfa silage is inoculated with different strains of microorganisms to improve the fermentation quality and aerobic stability of the silage.
Worldwide production 
Alfalfa is the most cultivated forage legume in the world. Worldwide production was around 436 million tons in 2006.[page needed] The US is the largest alfalfa producer in the world, but considerable production is found in Canada, Argentina (primarily grazed), Southern Europe, Australia, South Africa, and the Middle East..
Within the United States, the leading alfalfa growing states are California, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. The upper Midwestern states account for about 50% of US production, the Northeastern states 10%, the Western states 40%, and the Southeastern states almost none. Alfalfa can be grown in the southern US states, but often leaf and root diseases and poor soils are limitations. Alfalfa has a wide range of adaptation, and can be grown from very cold northern plains to high mountain valleys, from rich temperate agricultural regions to Mediterranean climates and searing hot deserts.
Alfalfa and bees 
Alfalfa seed production requires the presence of pollinators when the fields of alfalfa are in bloom. Alfalfa pollination is somewhat problematic, however, because Western honey bees, the most commonly used pollinator, are not suitable for this purpose; the pollen-carrying keel of the alfalfa flower trips and strikes pollinating bees on the head, which helps transfer the pollen to the foraging bee. Western honey bees, however, do not like being struck in the head repeatedly and learn to defeat this action by drawing nectar from the side of the flower. The bees thus collect the nectar, but carry no pollen and so do not pollinate the next flower they visit. Because older, experienced bees do not pollinate alfalfa well, most pollination is accomplished by young bees that have not yet learned the trick of robbing the flower without tripping the head-knocking keel. When western honey bees are used to pollinate alfalfa, the beekeeper stocks the field at a very high rate to maximize the number of young bees. Western honey bee colonies may suffer protein stress when working alfalfa only, due to shortage of one of the amino-acids comprising the pollen protein, iso-leucine. Today, the alfalfa leafcutter bee is increasingly used to circumvent these problems. As a solitary but gregarious bee species, it does not build colonies or store honey, but is a very efficient pollinator of alfalfa flowers. Nesting is in individual tunnels in wooden or plastic material, supplied by the alfalfa seed growers. The leafcutter bees are used in the Pacific Northwest, while western honeybees dominate in California alfalfa seed production.
A smaller amount of alfalfa produced for seed is pollinated by the alkali bee, mostly in the northwestern United States. It is cultured in special beds near the fields. These bees also have their own problems. They are not portable like honey bees, and when fields are planted in new areas, the bees take several seasons to build up. Honey bees are still trucked to many of the fields at bloom time.
Considerable research and development has been done with this important plant. Older cultivars such as 'Vernal' have been the standard for years, but many better public and private varieties better adapted to particular climates are available. Private companies release many new varieties each year in the US.
Most varieties go dormant in the fall, with reduced growth in response to low temperatures and shorter days. 'Nondormant' varieties that grow through the winter are planted in long-seasoned environments such as Mexico, Arizona, and Southern California, whereas 'dormant' varieties are planted in the Upper Midwest, Canada, and the Northeast. 'Nondormant' varieties can be higher yielding, but they are susceptible to winter-kill in cold climates and have poorer persistence.
Most alfalfa cultivars contain genetic material from sickle medick (M. falcata), a wild variety of alfalfa that naturally hybridizes with M. sativa to produce sand lucerne (M. sativa ssp. varia). This species may bear either the purple flowers of alfalfa or the yellow of sickle medick, and is so called for its ready growth in sandy soil.
Most of the improvements in alfalfa over the last decades have consisted of better disease resistance on poorly drained soils in wet years, better ability to overwinter in cold climates, and the production of more leaves. Multileaf alfalfa varieties have more than three leaflets per leaf, giving them greater nutritional content by weight because there is more leafy matter for the same amount of stem.
Wisconsin and California and many other states publish alfalfa variety trial data. A complete listing of state variety testing data is provided by the North American Alfalfa Improvement Conference (NAAIC) State Listing as well as additional detailed alfalfa genetic and variety data published by NAAIC.
Genetically modified alfalfa 
Roundup Ready alfalfa, a genetically modified variety was released by Forage Genetics Int'l in 2005. This was developed through the insertion of a gene owned by Monsanto Company that confers resistance to glyphosate, a broad-spectrum herbicide, also known as Roundup. Although most grassy and broadleaf plants, including ordinary alfalfa, are killed by Roundup, growers can spray fields of Roundup Ready alfalfa with the glyphosate herbicide and kill the weeds without harming the alfalfa crop.
Legal issues with Roundup Ready alfalfa in the US 
In 2005, after completing a 28-page environmental assessment (EA) the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) granted Roundup Ready alfalfa (RRA) nonregulated status under Code of Federal Regulations Title 7 Part 340, called, "Introduction of Organisms and Products Altered or Produced Through Genetic Engineering Which Are Plant Pests or Which There Is Reason to Believe Are Plant Pests", which regulates, among other things, the introduction (importation, interstate movement, or release into the environment) of organisms and products altered or produced through genetic engineering that are plant pests or that there is reason to believe are plant pests. Monsanto had to seek deregulation to conduct field trials of RRA, because the RRA contains a promoter sequence derived from the plant pathogen figwort mosaic virus. The USDA granted the application for deregulation, stating that the RRA with its modifications: "(1) Exhibit no plant pathogenic properties; (2) are no more likely to become weedy than the nontransgenic parental line or other cultivated alfalfa; (3) are unlikely to increase the weediness potential of any other cultivated or wild species with which it can interbreed; (4) will not cause damage to raw or processed agricultural commodities; (5) will not harm threatened or endangered species or organisms that are beneficial to agriculture; and (6) should not reduce the ability to control pests and weeds in alfalfa or other crops." Monsanto started selling RRA and within two years, more than 300,000 acres were devoted to the plant in the US.
The granting of deregulation was opposed by many groups, including growers of non-GM alfalfa who were concerned about gene flow into their crops. In 2006, the Center for Food Safety, a US non-governmental organization that is a critic of biotech crops, and others challenged this deregulation in the California Northern District Court Organic growers were concerned that the GM alfalfa could cross-pollinate with their organic alfalfa, making their crops unsalable in countries that ban the growing of GM crops. The District Court ruled that the USDA's EA did not address two issues concerning RRA's effect on the environment and in 2007, required the USDA to complete a much more extensive environmental impact statement (EIS). Until the EIS was completed, they banned further planting of RRA but allowed land already planted to continue. The USDA proposed a partial deregulation of RRA but this was also rejected by the District Court. Planting of RRA was halted.
On 21 June 2010, in Monsanto Co. v. Geertson Seed Farms, the Supreme Court overturned the District Court decision to ban planting RRA nationwide as there was no evidence of irreparable injury. They ruled that the USDA could partially deregulate RRA before an EIS was completed. The Supreme Court did not consider the District Court's ruling disallowing RRA's deregulation and consequently RRA was still a regulated crop waiting for USDA's completion of an EIS.
This decision was welcomed by the American Farm Bureau Federation, Biotechnology Industry Organization, American Seed Trade Association, American Soybean Association, National Alfalfa and Forage Alliance, National Association of Wheat Growers, National Cotton Council and National Potato Council. In July 2010, 75 members of Congress from both political parties sent a letter to Vilsack asking him to immediately allow limited planting of genetically engineered alfalfa. However the USDA did not issue interim deregulatory measures, instead focusing on completing the EIS. Their 2,300 page EIS was published in December 2010. It concluded that RRA would not affect the environment.
Three of the biggest natural food brands in the USA lobbied for a partial deregulation of RR alfalfa but in January 2011, despite protests from organic groups, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the USDA had approved the unrestricted planting of genetically modified alfalfa and planting resumed. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack commented "After conducting a thorough and transparent examination of alfalfa ... APHIS [Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] has determined that Roundup Ready alfalfa is as safe as traditionally bred alfalfa." About 20 million acres (8 million hectares) of alfalfa were grown in the US, the fourth-biggest crop by acreage, of which about 1% were organic. Some biotechnology officials forecast that half of the US alfalfa acreage could eventually be planted with GM alfalfa.
The National Corn Growers Association, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and the Council for Biotech Information warmly applauded this decision. Christine Bushway, CEO of the Organic Trade Association said "A lot of people are shell shocked. While we feel Secretary Vilsack worked on this issue, which is progress, this decision puts our organic farmers at risk." The Organic Trade Association issued a press release in 2011 saying that the USDA recognized the impact that cross contamination could have on organic alfalfa and urged them to place restrictions to minimise any such contamination. However organic farming groups, organic food outlets, and activists responded by publishing an open letter saying that planting the "alfalfa without any restrictions flies in the face of the interests of conventional and organic farmers, preservation of the environment, and consumer choice." Senator Debbie Stabenow, Chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, House Agriculture Committee Chairman, Frank Lucas, and Senator Richard Lugar  issued statements strongly supporting the decision "...giving growers the green light to begin planting an abundant, affordable and safe crop" and giving farmers and consumers the choice "...in planting or purchasing food grown with GM technology, conventionally, or organically." In a Joint Statement U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy and Representative Peter DeFazio said the USDA had the "opportunity to address the concerns of all farmers", but instead "surrender[ed] to business as usual for the biotech industry."
A book on agriculture by the Roman writer Palladius, dated 4th century AD, includes a section about alfalfa. Palladius says: "One sow-down lasts ten years. The crop may be cut four or six times a year.... An [Roman] acre of it is abundantly sufficient for three horses all the year.... It may be given to cattle, but new provender is at first to be administered very sparingly, because it bloats up the cattle." Palladius called alfalfa "medica", a name that referred to the Medes, a people who lived in ancient Iran. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed, probably correctly, that the alfalfa plant came from the Medes land (in today's Iran). (The ancient Greeks and Romans also used the name medica to mean a citron fruit, once again because it was believed to have come from the Medes land). The ancient Roman name medica is the root of the modern scientific name for the alfalfa genus, Medicago. Despite the report in Palladius and in some other Roman and ancient Greek writers, there is little evidence that alfalfa was in widespread use in the Mediterranean region in those days.
The medieval Arabic agricultural writer Ibn al-Awwam, who lived in Spain in the later 12th century, discussed how to sow and cultivate alfalfa. Ibn al-Awwam's name for alfalfa was "al-fiṣfiṣa". A 13th century general-purpose Arabic dictionary, Lisan al-Arab, says that "al-fiṣfiṣa" is cultivated as an animal feed and consumed in both fresh and dried form. In medieval Spain the Arabic name "al-fisfisa" mutated into the Spanish name "alfalfa". Alfalfa in medieval Spain was cultivated as fodder for horses and had a reputation as the best fodder for them. In the 16th century, Spanish colonizers introduced alfalfa to the Americas as fodder for their horses. The English name "alfalfa" dates from mid-19th century far-west USA, from the Spanish. Alfalfa seeds were imported to California from Chile in the 1850s. That was the beginning of a rapid and extensive introduction of the crop over the western US States. In the North American colonies of the eastern US back in the 18th century it was called "lucerne" and lots of trials at growing it were made, but generally without getting satisfactory results. Relatively very little alfalfa is grown in the eastern US still today. Today in France and Germany, and also in Britain and Australia, alfalfa is usually called "lucerne" | "luzerne", a word that arose in French in the 16th century. Since North and South America now produce a large part of the world's output, the word "alfalfa" has been slowly entering into other languages besides English and Spanish.
Phytoestrogens in alfalfa 
Nutritional value 
Alfalfa is high in protein, calcium, plus other minerals, vitamins in the B group, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E, and vitamin K. The sun-dried hay of alfalfa (also known as Lucerne) has been found to be a source of vitamin D, containing 48 ng/g (1920 IU/kg) vitamin D2 and 0.63 ng/g (25 IU/kg) vitamin D3. There is reference to vitamin D2 and vitamin D3 being found in the alfalfa shoot; this is awaiting verification. Mushrooms are not allowed in Jain vegetarianism, making alfalfa the only known source Jains can use to make vitamin D2 supplements.
Traditional medicine 
|This section does not cite any references or sources. (September 2012)|
Alfalfa has been used as an herbal medicine for over 1,500 years. In early Chinese medicines, physicians used young alfalfa leaves to treat disorders related to the digestive tract and the kidneys. In Ayurvedic medicine, physicians used the leaves for treating poor digestion. They made a cooling poultice from the seeds for boils. At the time, alfalfa was also believed to be beneficial to people suffering from arthritis and water retention.
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- Staff (20 January 2011) National Corn Growers Assn. supports deregulation of Roundup Ready alfalfa The Minnesota Farm Guide, Retrieved 1 November 2012
- Tannen, Benjamin (14 March 2011) USDA Fully Deregulates Genetically Modified Alfalfa University of Pennsylvania Law School, RegBlog News, Retrieved 1 November 2012
- Staff (27 January 2011) BIO Applauds USDA Decision to Deregulate Biotech Alfalfa Biotech Now, Retrieved 1 November 2012
- Organic Trade Association's Organic Newsroom: Organic industry wants farmers protected in the marketplace. Organicnewsroom.com (2011-01-20). Retrieved on 8 February 2011.
- "We Stand United in Opposition to GE Alfalfa". 31 January 2011. Retrieved 19 March 2011.
- Staff (January 2011) Senate Ag's Stabenow, House Ag's Lucas welcome biotech alfalfa deregulation Agri-Pulse Communications Inc., Retrieved 1 November 2012
- Harsch, John H. (27 January 2011) Sen. Lugar strongly supports GE alfalfa deregulation, to avoid 'government control' Agri-Pulse Communications Inc., Retrieved 1 November 2012
- Press Release, Sem Patrick Leahy website. 27 January 2011 USDA’s Decision Thursday On Genetically Engineered Alfalfa – Leahy And DeFazio Warn About USDA Decision Lifting All Protections For Organic And Conventional Farmers
- Maria Rodale: We Stand in Opposition to GE Alfalfa. Huffingtonpost.com. Retrieved on 8 February 2011.
- Complaint for Declatory and Injunctive Relief United States District Court for the Northern District of California, Case No CV11 1310, 18 March 2011. Retrieved 15 November 2011
- Staff (12 May 2012) Challenge to Genetically Engineered Alfalfa Rejected 31 Biotechnology Law Report 151, Number 2 2012. Retrieved 25 July 2012
- Links to online copies of the complete book Opus Agriculturae (aka De Re Rustica) by Palladius are listed at the foot of the Wikipedia article Rutilius Taurus Aemilianus Palladius.
- Ibn al-Awwam's late 12th century Book on Agriculture is downloadable from links at the Wikipedia Ibn al-Awwam page. Alfalfa and berseem clover are the subject of the book's Chapter XXII article viii.
- The 13th century Arabic Lisan al-Arab dictionary is online at Baheth.info. Search for فصفصة in the dictionary. (The dictionary is also downloadable at Archive.org but that version doesn't have searchable text).
- Discussed in French in Glossaire des mots espagnols et portugais dérivés de l'arabe by R. Dozy & W.H. Engelmann, published in 1869. Tersely summarized in English at ref and ref.
- "History of Alfalfa in California", by anonymous author. (Another source for the same statement (not the original source): Alternate Methods for Cultivar Synthesis in Alfalfa, by Rupesh Ram Kariyat Ramachandran, year 2007 page 5).
- "Alfalfa" by J. M. Westgate, year 1908 pages 5-6, published by USA Department of Agriculture.
- "Phytoestrogen content and estrogenic effect of legume fodder". Proc. Soc. Exp. Biol. Med. 208 (1): 13–7. January 1995. PMID 7892287.
- Natural Health Products Ingredients Database. Webprod.hc-sc.gc.ca (18 April 2007). Retrieved on 17 October 2011.
- Notes on poisoning: alfalfa
- Nutrition Research Center, Alfalfa Nutritional Value. Nutritionresearchcenter.org (21 March 2008). Retrieved on 17 October 2011.
- The Facts About Alfalfa, Melissa Kaplans' Herb Care. Anapsid.org. Retrieved on 17 October 2011.
- "Alfalfa: The Father of All Foods". ALFALFA - A Discussion of Vitamin B-12 in The Vegetarian Diet. Retrieved 2 November 2011.
- Diamond, Marilyn (1990). The American Vegetarian Cookbook from the Fit For Life Kitchen. New York: Warner Books. p. 379. ISBN 0-446-51561-2.
- R . L . HORST et al., The Isolation and identification of Vitamin D2 and Vitamin D3 from Medicago sativa (Alfalfa Plant), ARCHIVES OF BIOCHEMISTRY AND BIOPHYSICS Vol. 231, No. 1, May 15, pp. 67-71, 1984 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6326678
- Chemical Information
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