Medicine from the jungles 


Biodiversity prospecting is the process of searching for naturally-occurring organisms that may be able to be used as a pharmaceutical or other beneficial innovation.

Many bioprospecters look for plants and microorganisms, usually running chemical tests on them to see if they could be of any significance. Modern science has transformed bioprospecting so that now, substances that occur in nature can be reproduced in a factory by genetic engineering. Scientists can take a gene that produces a desired compound from a naturally occurring organism and transplant it into laboratory-bred bacteria. As the bacteria grow, these transplanted genes make the desired compound.

Thermus aquaticus, a type of bacteria living in Yellowstone's geothermal hot springs, possesses the Taq Polymerase enzyme that aids in PCR.

Yellowstone National Park contains geothermal pools that harbor microorganisms that have led to great discoveries in biotechnology.

In 1985, Cetus Corporation patented Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) with an enzyme called Taq Polymerase that was derived from Thermus aquaticus, an organism that lives in Yellowstone's hot springs.

To allow PCR to take place, Taq Polymerase proved to be a durable enzyme that could work at the high temperatures during the reaction. This amazing enzyme has led to the breakthroughs in DNA matching, crime investigation, and medical diagnoses for cures to diseases. (50) 

Herbal Cures: Plants In Your Medicine Cabinet

Many plants can provide useful drugs for people. Half of all medicines derived from plants come from the tropical rainforests around the world. When a potential pharmaceutical plant is discovered, it is ground up and analyzed for its specific chemical components. Chemists can compare the plant chemical's molecules with other molecules to try and see if the plant chemical could be made into a drug. Scientists can use synthetic templates to refine toxicity or enhance the potency of the chemical to make it safer or more effective in treating a disease. After alteration of the newly discovered chemical into a pharmaceutical, scientists can then begin to conduct clinical trials and possibly even get it approved by the FDA. Although it is rare that an herbal drug goes up for sale on the market due to cost and strict safety requirements, a successful plant-derived pharmaceutical can bring in $160 million a year in the U.S. (5)

 The National Cancer Institute has identified at least 3,000 plant species that are active against cancer cells. (6)

Madagascar Rose Periwinkle

The Madagascar Rose Periwinkle or Catharanthus roseus contains chemicals that are effective against Hodgkin's disease and Leukemia. (6) The plant contains the alkaloids, vinblastine and vincristine which treat Leukemia. (7) 

In fact, the drugs derived from this plant have increased children's survivability of leukemia from 10% to 90%.

However, the Rose Periwinkle, an endemic to Madagascar, has gone extinct in much of its natural range. It is still cultivated in other places, but our ignorance has come close to eradicating a precious natural resource. (6)

Toxic Cures: How Snake Venom Can Heal Your Disease

Some drugs are actually derived from the venom of poisonous animals such as snakes. Snake venom possesses many different proteins that when modified can actually be trained to attack harmful blood clots or cancerous cells. Two drugs already on the market that treat people with coronary heart disease are Eptifibitide (Integrilin), derived from a protein in rattlesnake venom, and Tirofiban from the saw-scaled viper's venom. The venom's protein, which when delivered by the snake prevents blood clots and causes uncontrollable bleeding to the victim, can be modified and refined to specifically target blocked heart arteries in heart attack patients.

 Snake venom is so promising to human medicine that it has even become an interest to scientists looking for a cure for breast cancer.

Dr. Francis Markland at the University of California in Los Angeles is testing the effect of venom of the Southern Copperhead Snake on cancer.

The protein from the venom is called Contortrostatin and it has proved to stop cancerous cells from binding to healthy cells and spreading. When tested in mice, the protein was shown to stop the spread of a tumor to the lungs by 90%. In the very near future, breast cancer may no longer exist in our lives. (8)

Venomous snakes like this Southern Copperhead may one day hold the key to a cure for cancer. However, many snakes have yet to be discovered, and some which possess a "toxic cure" may go extinct unnoticed due to habitat loss in the tropics.

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