Un­charted ter­ri­to­ries

A LOOK AT SOME OF THE UN­EX­PLORED KING­DOMS OF MEDICINE – AND WHY THEY’VE RE­MAINED UN­MAPPED

Asian Geographic - - Environment -

owe much of our good health to Earth’s bi­o­log­i­cal di­ver­sity. Given the wealth of species in the world, sci­en­tists are still find­ing new nat­u­ral sources for medicines. There are many promis­ing medic­i­nal sources within the planet’s bio­di­ver­sity – an­i­mals, plants, fun­gus, bac­te­ria, and more.

How­ever, phar­ma­col­o­gists still have a wealth of fur­ther king­doms to ex­plore, such as min­er­als and in­or­ganic chem­i­cals, and elec­tro­mag­netic and ra­dioac­tive en­er­gies, pre­sent­ing sur­pris­ing new and in­no­va­tive tech­niques in ge­netic medicine.

Let’s take a look at some of these un­ex­plored king­doms of medicine, and gain a sense of why they’ve re­mained un­mapped.

Tra­di­tional medicines have been passed down from one gen­er­a­tion to the next be­tween the ages, and we can only imag­ine the spark of in­spi­ra­tion that trig­gered their recog­ni­tion by our ob­ser­vant an­ces­tors. Mod­ern phar­macy con­tains about 1,500 ap­proved drugs, as listed by the US Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion; most of these are de­rived from or in­spired by nat­u­ral bio­chem­istry – in par­tic­u­lar, flow­er­ing plants.

Glob­ally, 50,000 of the world’s 400,000 plants have been con­sid­ered or in­ves­ti­gated sci­en­tif­i­cally for med­i­cal po­ten­tial, but there are also many thou­sands of tra­di­tional reme­dies that of­fer promis­ing health so­lu­tions. For ex­am­ple, the peo­ple of South­east Asia’s rain­forests have 6,500 plants in their cul­tural medicine chest. While ran­dom screen­ing of plants may yield some re­sults, sci­en­tists search­ing for new medicines can fol­low the wis­dom of these cul­tures’ tra­di­tional medicines in tar­get­ing their search.

An­other source is the an­i­mal world, with sources that in­clude snake ven­oms, gland ex­tracts, and re­fined tis­sues. There is an un­ex­pect­edly rich source of bio­di­ver­sity that has, un­til now, been ne­glected and un­ex­plored: un­der­wa­ter an­i­mals. With sev­eral mil­lion species es­ti­mated to live un­der­wa­ter, the liq­uid realm is mostly undis­cov­ered due to its rel­a­tive in­ac­ces­si­bil­ity. An­i­mals liv­ing in coral reefs, in par­tic­u­lar, have a wide va­ri­ety of chem­i­cal se­crets that were im­pos­si­ble to sam­ple be­fore the in­ven­tion of scuba div­ing.

There is also a wide va­ri­ety of in­sects that have evolved into new species along­side flow­er­ing plants. As their bio­chem­istry evolves to sur­mount plant de­fenses, they have cre­ated new com­pounds that prof­fer a prospec­tive realm for medic­i­nal ex­plo­ration. As is the case of un­der­wa­ter an­i­mals, the ini­tial chal­lenge is in sim­ply doc­u­ment­ing the ex­is­tence of un­known species.

Some of the most im­por­tant medicines come from fungi. The an­tibi­otic peni­cillin was first iso­lated from a cit­rus mold, ush­er­ing in a new era of ef­fec­tive treat­ments against bac­te­rial in­fec­tions.

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My­col­o­gists have used ge­netic tech­niques to hy­poth­e­sise the ex­is­tence of up to five mil­lion fun­gal species, but most of them re­main undis­cov­ered in the soil, on rain­for­est trees, within rot­ting wood, or even grow­ing sym­bi­ot­i­cally within lichens.

The world’s great­est bio­di­ver­sity lies al­most com­pletely un­stud­ied in the catch-all cat­e­gory of mi­crobes: a broad group­ing which in­cludes un­count­able va­ri­eties of bac­te­ria, viruses, al­gae, pro­to­zoa and more. Within a sin­gle litre of sea­wa­ter, there may be al­most 40,000 types of mi­crobe; in oceanic vol­canic vents and sul­phuric caves, ar­chaean mi­crobes have a novel bio­chem­istry that is poorly un­der­stood.

Ac­com­pa­ny­ing these op­por­tu­ni­ties for medicine comes a sober­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity: to never over­ex­ploit rare re­sources – a warn­ing we find in the ram­pant poach­ing of rhino and tiger for their per­ceived medic­i­nal value. In do­ing so, we run the risk of dam­ag­ing frag­ile ecosys­tems. How­ever, we can place a great de­gree of hu­man value on the wild forests and oceans that may yet yield new medicines to improve health­care.

Not all medicines are found in Na­ture: We now have the abil­ity to build medicines. Phar­ma­col­o­gists can com­bine chem­i­cals di­rectly, of­ten us­ing a nat­u­ral source as in­spi­ra­tion. Al­most all of these are or­ganic, built upon car­bon mol­e­cules as in liv­ing sys­tems. There are some in­or­ganic – and even el­e­men­tal – medicines that are med­i­cally ac­tive. Fur­ther­more, there are po­ten­tially rev­o­lu­tion­ary tech­niques be­ing de­vel­oped to build tai­lored ge­netic medicines in which en­gi­neered or­gan­isms, or snip­pets of DNA, are med­i­cally utilised.

With the help of mod­ern med­i­cal care, we are liv­ing longer, health­ier lives than our pre­de­ces­sors. While there may be new health con­cerns on the hori­zon, there are also vast king­doms await­ing med­i­cal ex­plo­ration. We have also broad­ened our per­spec­tives to count en­tirely dif­fer­ent con­cepts as medicine: ex­er­cise, si­lence, med­i­ta­tion, mu­sic, travel, sleep, friend­ships. Who knows where the next life-giv­ing dis­cov­ery will be made? ag

The rain­forests of Bor­neo are home to a vast ar­ray of liv­ing or­gan­isms (top left); the leaves of an uniden­ti­fied South In­dian rain­for­est tree (right) may hold med­i­cal se­crets to be dis­cov­ered with mod­ern chem­istry

Clock­wise from left Fun­gus on rot­ting rain­for­est wood; a re­mark­able net-shaped struc­ture on a rain­for­est mush­room; young leaf ma­te­rial is rich in al­ka­loids and other bi­o­log­i­cally ac­tive com­pounds

( Azidirach­taindica) ( Ephe­drasinica) ( Pa­paver­som­niferum) ( Citruslimon) ( Zin­giberof­fic­i­nale) ( Styraxbe­zoin) ( Rau­volfi­aser­pentina) ( Cin­namo­mum­cam­phora) ( Salix

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