The discovery of two natural compounds that may enhance broccoli's anti-cancer properties while prolonging its shelf life was rather serendipitous for University of Illinois, Urbana, researchers.

Jack Juvik, a crop sciences researcher, had been leading a group examining how to improve the crop's health-promoting properties, according to a news release.

The group tested methyl jasmonate, a naturally occurring compound, applied over the top about four days before harvest.

The compound stimulates a process of gene activity involved with biosynthesis of glucosinolates—chemicals found in broccoli and other brassicas.

Glucosinolates have been identified as potent cancer-prevention agents that help eliminate carcinogens from the body.

But methyl jasmonate also signals genes that lead to plant decay and ethylene release, decreasing shelf life.

So the researchers looked at 1-MCP, a relatively new, naturally occurring compound that interferes with receptor proteins sensitive to ethylene. It's also relatively inexpensive.

Using the same test broccoli that had been treated before harvest, they applied the 1-MCP after harvest.

“Ethylene will move and bind to ethylene receptors and that binding process initiates decay. What this compound does is that it more competitively lands on the protein and binds to or pushes out ethylene,” Juvik said in the release. “It basically stops or dramatically slows down the decay associated with ethylene."

They published their work in the online journal, Plos One.

Rohm & Hass Inc., the parent company of AgroFresh-branded 1-MCP, provided product and equipment for the study.