WASHINGTON (RNS)-- After escaping slavery in Egypt, Israelites wandered inthe wilderness, according to the book of Exodus, with little to eat andeven less to drink.

Their joy at finding a river was short-lived as they soon discoveredits waters were bitter and undrinkable.

But then Moses "cried unto the Lord," and "The Lord showed him atree, which when he had cast into the waters, the waters were madesweet..."

Researcher Lowell Fuglie doesn't know for sure what tree helpedquench the thirst of Moses and other Israelites in the desert thousandsof years ago, but he's got a hunch a similar plant could help endmalnutrition and fight AIDS in Africa.

"The Moringa tree has been around for a very long time--people havealways known its value," said Fuglie, who heads the West Africa regionaloffice for Church World Service in Dakar, Senegal. "It can purify dirtywater in less than an hour--it can do so many different things."

Fuglie has dedicated himself the past two years toexploring the tree's possibilities and its implications for Africancountries. Partnering with Senegalese health clinics and AlternativeAction for African Development, a government health service, Fugliehelped lead a Church World Service project in southwestern Senegal thatstudied the nutritional value of the Moringa tree and its use as aweapon against the widespread malnutrition that afflicts Africa.

"We convinced various doctors at eight different health outposts torecommend Moringa leaf powder to mothers of malnourished infants to seewhat effect it would have," said Fuglie, who has worked 11 years inAfrica with Church World Service, the relief agency of the U.S. NationalCouncil of Churches. "Usually they recommend a combination of milkpowder, vegetable oil, sugar and peanut butter. By the end of theproject all of these health posts had abandoned the old treatments ofimported items, and now they were all using Moringa to treat cases ofmalnutrition."

The Moringa tree is a fountain of minerals and vitamins, saidFuglie, noting that much of the tree--from root to flowers--is edible.

"Gram for gram, Moringa leaves contain three times the iron ofspinach, four times the vitamin A of carrots, seven times the Vitamin Cof oranges, three times the potassium of bananas, and four times thecalcium and twice the protein of milk," he explained. "Nutritionally,you can't beat it."

Parents of malnourished children in Senegal reported rapid weightgains within months after they added Moringa to their infants' diets.

Common throughout Africa, India and Central America, the tree isparticularly well-suited to the arid climate of many countries inAfrica, Fuglie said, because it is resistant to drought.

"The Moringa tree grows very well in very dry conditions, like sandysoil and direct sunlight," he said, "so it is an ideal tree for thoseareas where malnutrition is the biggest problem, the dry arid areas ofthe sub-Saharan region."

The Moringa tree is particularly well-suited to counteringmalnutrition because its leaves emerge just before the end of the dryseason, when leafy green vegetables are often unavailable.

"When you look at malnutrition in West Africa, you're looking at alack of iron, a lack of protein, a lack of vitamin A--in effect,you're looking at malnutrition caused by a lack of the very thingsMoringa contains so much," he said. "When you look at the classicapproaches to dealing with malnutrition in Africa, you see organizationsimporting enriched biscuits or vitamin A tablets made in the UnitedStates. That's ridiculous. Here is an indigenous nutritional supplementthat people can grow in their own back yards."

Fuglie said the tree's nutritional value also could help boost theimmune system of people living with AIDS or infected with the HIV virus,which causes AIDS.

"One thing HIV-infected people must do is maintain as high a basicnutritional standard as they can," said Fuglie, who presented a workshopabout the Moringa tree during the HIV/AIDS & Malaria InternationalConference in mid-April in Atlanta. "One way to do this is through theMoringa tree--it's an all-natural source of nutrition that could helppeople with HIV and AIDS live longer and healthier lives."

Though the Moringa tree has earned many fans, including NationalCouncil of Churches President and former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young(who asked well-wishers to donate Moringa seeds instead of flowers whenhe was hospitalized last December for prostate surgery), the U.S.medical community remains skeptical, Fuglie said.

"We do have the Western academic skepticism to overcome," he said ina post-conference interview. "We found this true in Senegal, too--thedoctors and nurses and medical professionals we presented it to all knewabout the tree, they had eaten it many times, but they've gone throughWestern training and been taught to rely on imported drugs made in theWest. So they see this local plant as herbal medicine and as inferior tomodern Western medicine."