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Appreciating The Nature In Your Medicine Cabinet

By James Morris
Guest contributor

One of the the most exciting aspects of the recent discovery of the new antibiotic teixobactic was the way scientists discovered it — and where.

The antibiotic comes from a bacterium that was found in a sample of soil from Maine. To uncover it, scientists used a new technique that allowed them to screen bacteria for antibiotics without growing them in culture, opening the door to finding newer, more potent and less resistant antibiotics in the future.

It’s worth noting that teixobactic is not the only antibiotic that comes from a bacterium. In fact, many of our antibiotics come from bacteria and other microbes, and many of our medicines come from nature. It’s one of the benefits of biodiversity.

Recently, I was teaching a class on biodiversity to college students. To get them thinking about how we benefit from species richness, I asked the class to name a couple of medicines that derive from nature.

I thought this would be an easy question. To my surprise, the class (of 250 students) was silent. This was unusual — I usually have more trouble keeping them quiet. Finally, after maybe 20 seconds (a long time in a large lecture hall), a hand shot up. “Marijuana!” one student proudly exclaimed.

I was taken aback. Not because weed was mentioned in a college classroom. And not because the student was incorrect — she was of course correct. Marijuana comes from the plant Cannabis and it has some useful medicinal properties, for example to treat nausea caused by cancer chemotherapy, and fatigue, appetite loss and pain associated with AIDS. There is continued debate over its use, but that’s not the point.

The point is that while the class was hard-pressed to come up with more than one medicine derived from nature, the reality is just the opposite: It’s difficult to think of a medicine that doesn’t ultimately come from nature.

If apples and carrots are nature’s toothbrush, grapes are nature’s jellybeans, and raisins are nature’s candy, then certainly plants, animals, fungi, and microbes are nature’s medicine cabinet.

Perhaps the most famous example is penicillin. Continue reading