The Ultimate Natural Pharmacist

Bumper stickers proclaiming the need to "Save the Pacific Yews" or "Protect Streptomyces Hydroscopicus Now" have not appeared yet, but perhaps they should. The bark of the Pacific yew tree produces Taxol, one of our most significant cancer-fighting drugs. Streptomyces hydroscopicus is a bacterium native to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the South Pacific, and it produces an antifungal agent called rapamycin, a compound with a potent immune system suppressor that is the basis for a new drug to help transplant patients accept their new organs.

Many people believe the environment has little left to offer us for new medicines, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Only a few hundred wild species have served as antibiotics, anticancer agents, painkillers, and blood thinners; fewer than 450 bioactive substances have been isolated from mollusks, and fewer than 250 from insects. The chemical biology of literally hundreds of thousands of other species is uncharted territory, and some of these species have been fighting microbes and cancerous cells for millions of years. They know something we need to know, and unless they are preserved they will be carrying their secrets to the grave.

We have lost some valuable secrets already: a frog that could carry her eggs and tadpoles in her stomach by turning off her stomach acid - the Australian gastric-brooding frog- went extinct in 1980. The chance of isolating the chemical or chemicals that could have helped with human stomach ailments is now gone. A female contraceptive known as siliphion was in such wide use by ancient Greeks that the plant was portrayed on some coins. The siliphion plant is now also extinct.

The cruel irony here is that our ability to synthesize drugs using natural substances as a guide has never been greater, and our understanding of how genes work is growing exponentially. We are in a unique position to convert the molecular architecture and biological activity of unknown species into real medical value, but we need to preserve species richness to mine the medical riches of any species.

References:

Nicolaou, K.C., et al. 1998. "The Art and Science of Organic and Natural Products Synthesis," Journal of Chemical Education, Vol. 75 No. 10 October, pp. 1226-1258.

Plotkin, Mark. 2000. Medicine Quest: In Search of Nature's Healing Secrets. New York: Viking.

Wilson, Edward O. 2000. "Vanishing Before Our Eyes," Time, April-May, pp. 29-34.