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Searching for Nature's Medicines

Mark J. Plotkin


It’s crucial that we protect biodiversity because nature can provide:

  • medicines from natural products
  • new antibiotics and organisms that fight antibiotic resistance
  • models for medical research
  • knowledge about how all living things depend on each other

October 2000

Nasturtium flowers have long been used as a disinfectant, for healing wounds, and to relieve chest conditions.
Photograph: Penny East, Creative Commons.

Editor’s Note: To read excerpts from Dr. Plotkin’s book, Medicine Quest: In Search of Nature’s Healing Secrets, click here.

Why is biodiversity important to an ethnobotanist?

We have no right to destroy species for profit.

Plotkin: In the field of ethnobotany, biodiversity is incredibly important for utilitarian purposes, the utility and the potential utility of these species — both plants and animals. We are talking about usefulness not only to the local peoples that we are working with and studying but potentially to ourselves as well, in other words, to global culture. But we should take a step back from that and say that it is important to protect species and biodiversity not just for utilitarian purposes. Conservation really should be a spiritual exercise first and foremost, a moral exercise. In other words, we don’t have the right to extinguish species because of our own stupidity, greed, or ignorance. But when you are talking with hard-pressed development planners, in the third world in particular, and this happens in Washington as well, dollar values can sometimes carry the day.

What medicines can be derived from nature?

Nature offers medicines, such as painkillers, that can be derived naturally or in combination with chemical synthetics.

Plotkin: Well, my new book, Medicine Quest, focuses on the medicines of the future that will be derived from natural products being investigated today. I think the best way to predict the future, no matter what field you are in, is to look at the past and present and try and define where we are going. The mistake that a lot of people make, particularly the general public, is that they think, “well, we have got all this cool technology, who needs Mother Nature?” Put more crudely: in the age of the Internet who needs fungi? But the fact of the matter is that, despite the fact that we have the most successful system of science, medicine, and healing ever seen anywhere, there are certain things that western medicine cannot do. So, I think the drugs of the future that come from nature are going to be for the treatment of pain first. Some very exciting things are in the pipeline and I go into some detail in my book particularly about painkillers from cone snails, snake venom, and frog skin poison. We’re looking at new treatments for cancer, from marine organisms in particular, and new antibiotics from natural sources. Antibiotics are incredibly important. I’m increasingly convinced that the major threat to our species is from drug-resistant bacteria. The source of almost all classes of antibiotics has been natural sources. I spoke recently with the head of microbiology at Harvard Medical School and he pointed out that new technologies allow us to access 98% of the soil diversity. This was not accessible using the old method of throwing something on a petri dish to see if it will grow. I predict that many of the new antibiotics of the future will come from soil fungi, as was the case in the past. It’s important to note that this does not deny the importance of synthetics or potential synthetics. The two hottest new leads for drug- resistant bacteria that hit the market in the last two years are ones that come from Argentine soil fungi and the other from a synthetic chemical laboratory. So it’s not one or the other. It’s natural products, synthetic chemistry, and semi-synthetic products as well.

What are governments and organizations doing to preserve naturally-derived medical resources?

Companies that bioprospect for natural products should compensate the local people who have used them in their culture.

Plotkin: I think that the whole concept of intellectual property rights boils down to a question of good manners. If you’re going to compensate local or indigenous people, you want to do so in a culturally sensitive way. But you cannot say, “okay — we’ll be back in twelve years and, if we have the cure for AIDS, you’ll be in the money.” These people have real needs now. And those needs need to be addressed, whether its education or access to Western medicine or access to lawyers to gain title to their traditional lands. This model is increasingly accepted but the problem is that there’s been so much noise about this that, I think, it frightens some companies off that might be, and I emphasize might be, willing to do things the right way. You have a lot more emphasis on bioprospecting for natural products that are not used by indigenous or local cultures because, frankly, corporations don’t want the headaches of dealing with them.

Which issues are important to your organization, The Amazon Conservation Team?

The protection of indigenous knowledge will ensure that we learn about nature’s benefits.

Plotkin: As I point out in my new book, the urgent need is to protect biodiversity and I would say, even more importantly, to protect cultural diversity because it’s at that nexus where shaministic knowledge and western science interface. If you look at the country of Suriname in Northeastern South America, where I have done much of my work, there are no indigenous people living in 75% of the national parks. Most of them went extinct from these areas long before these parks were set up. Even if there are species in the area that might help us treat or cure something like diabetes, how do we know what they are, what part of the plants to use, what phase of the moon to harvest them in, and what is the dosage? That’s the loss we face when these cultures disappear. Our concern is not the commercialization of natural products - we are a not-for-profit and do not do bioprospecting. Our focus is to ensure that the traditional knowledge is passed from one generation to the next within the tribe. We are interested in protecting biological and cultural diversity, not in commercial development. Our work entails everything from sponsoring shaman’s apprentice programs to helping our tribal colleagues map their lands.

Does genetic engineering threaten the remaining natural resources?

We must approach genetic engineering cautiously since we have no idea of its long-term impacts on the environment and our health.

Plotkin: Well, genetic engineering is like western medicine. The potential is great but the potential to harm has to be recognized. I don’t think that genetic engineering is going to solve the world’s problems any more than I know that ethnobotany is going to save the rain forests or that the next presidential election will solve all of our economic and poverty problems in this country. The future may be great for genetic engineering but I want to make sure that it’s safe and effective and I don’t want these crops tested on me, or my kids, or my grandkids. I want to make sure they don’t have ancillary downstream negative effects on the environment before they’re out there. In some cases, it seems that the cart has been put before the horse; we’re being told that these things are safe and the next thing you know the butterflies are dying off. No, I want more conclusive scientific proof that this stuff is indeed harmless. The upside is very obvious but the downside is becoming more evident and needs to be addressed before we start eating the stuff.

In addition, the jungle is a pretty robust place. I don’t really see anything taking over in the heart of the jungle and outcompeting the jungle. I haven’t in 20 years. That is not to say I am Pollyannish about it. I just don’t think you could have some Frankenstein or “frankenfood” that can get in there and make a mess of things. I’m more concerned about places like Iowa or places with large plantations growing this stuff rather than places where it hasn’t really penetrated, for example, into the rogue corners where I work.

Are there places in the world other than the Amazon, for example, the desert, where nature’s medicines can be found?

Rain forests and coral reefs have incredible potential for natural medicines.

Plotkin: The hottest regions, in terms of immediate potential, would be rain forests and coral reefs. As I pointed out in my first book [Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice: An Ethnobotanist Searches for New Medicines in the Amazon Rain Forest], the rainforest is one for obvious reasons. My new book shows that coral reefs are drawing even more attention than the rainforest. Now it’s interesting that you mention the desert because the organization that I run is the Amazon Conservation Team but one of our major programs is in the Sonoran desert. It is headed by my good friend and colleague Gary Nabham. Although this is one of the most difficult and challenging environments on the planet, local and indigenous people have figured out how to ecolive from it. One of the ways they’ve been able to do that is by understanding the resources and managing them wisely. Now if you were a plant and want to survive in the desert, you have to be tough and be able to protect yourself. These people’s lives depend on knowing this ecosystem. Why not look to them to not only understand it but also to protect and maybe even use it?

Is it possible to find an organism in nature that will alleviate the threat of antibiotic resistance?

We desperately need to solve the antibiotic resistance crisis and nature may hold the key.

Plotkin: I really do believe we’re at a crisis point. There is a bug called Staph aureus that you may have heard of and there is a bug that you may or may not have heard of called Vancomycin-resistant enterococcus (VRE). If VRE transfers its Vancomycin resistance to Staph aureus, we are toast. It is going to melt the human species like a wax museum on fire. Doctors have gone from concerned to worried to verging on frightened in some cases. These are quotes now; I’m not making this up. We desperately need new drugs for drug-resistant Staph, drug resistant enterococcus, and all these other drug-resistant bacteria that are out there, gram negative and gram positive.

It’s interesting that you mention the word “organism” to treat this. We tend to think of antibiotics as things that come from microbes. There is an even more exciting, or at least as exciting, development and that is the use of tiny tiny tiny viruses called bacteriophages. Bacteriophages eat bacteria. They were developed in France and in Soviet Georgia in the 30’s and, guess what, the Russians and Georgians have never stopped using this stuff. There is, in fact, evidence that Russian troops in Chechnya are still using bacteriophages. Certainly the Soviet soldiers carried them into World War II so it is clear that these things can be effective. There are several startup companies now in the U.S. and in parts of Europe investigating bacteriophages as a source of new treatments for drug-resistant bacteria. They are claiming phenomenal rates of success. So it’s that mixture of nature and science, which promises so much for the future.

Does nature have many more secrets for us to unravel?

Conclusion: Biodiversity education is very important since there is still much to discover in nature.

Plotkin: Yes and that is there’s so much to be learned from biodiversity. I run into kids that feel, “Oh well, the world is already explored and there’s nothing left to do. Maybe we have to go to other planets to do this stuff.” They need to know that new technologies make it possible to explore realms of our world, whether it’s deep-sea vents or soil fungi, in ways never before possible. We need to get kids excited about science and biodiversity because, if they’re not, they will go into fields like the computer sciences, thinking that’s where the action or money is. Bringing this knowledge not only to schoolchildren but also to people who have an even shorter attention span, like Congress, is extremely important.

[To read excerpts from Dr. Plotkin’s book, Medicine Quest: In Search of Nature’s Healing Secrets, click here] Editor’s Note (11/02): The first World Atlas of Biodiversity: Earth’s Living Resources for the 21st Century was released by the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) in August 2002 (University of California Press). Its writers estimate that:

  • at current extinction rates of plants and animals, the Earth is losing one major drug every two years
  • less than 1% of the world’s 250,000 tropical plants have been screened for potential pharmaceutical applications
  • 80% of people in developing countries rely on medicines based largely on plants and animals
  • in the United States alone, 56% of the top 150 prescribed drugs — with an economic value of $80 billion — are linked to discoveries made in the wild

Mark J. Plotkin, Ph.D. is president of the Amazon Conservation Team and research associate at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History. He earned his academic credits at the universities of Harvard, Yale, and Tufts. Trained as an ethnobotanist, he conducts much of his research in tropical America. In his newest book, Medicine Quest, Dr. Plotkin goes beyond Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice, a cult classic of its genre, to explore the search for new medicines.

Searching for Nature's Medicines

BioScience Article

“Having Their Toxins and Eating Them Too.”
This study of natural chemical defenses in animals, for which they usually absorb or eat directly, provides similar effects as is seen when humans use medicine. Read the citation (BioScience, December 1999), or log in to purchase the full article.


Lawyer Michael Gollin explains the problems and legal ramifications of biopiracy in another article on this site.

Indigenous peoples’ perspective

The Convention on Biological Diversity offers links to web sites that provide information on indigenous people and traditional knowledge.

Native American ethnobotany database

Search through the University of Michigan database about foods, drugs, dyes, and fibers of native North American peoples.

Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity

“Weaving together philosophical, historical, legal, scientific and personal viewpoints, this book gives a rich sample of the vast web that makes up our cultural, spiritual and social diversity.” The United Nations Environment Programme provides a free download of this book.

World Atlas of Biodiversity — interactive map

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released the first World Atlas of Biodiversity in August 2002. This link takes you to their online interactive map that helps you search for data about species/land/water loss, extinction over time, and human global development. Click on the “?” for a help page that explains how to interact with this map.

Tropical Conservancy

This organization “works to conserve and protect species, habitats and the environment worldwide” and publishes the international journal Biodiversity as part of these efforts.

Read a book

  • » Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice : An Ethnobotanist Searches for New Medicines in the Amazon Rain Forest by Mark J. Plotkin (Penguin USA, 1994). Western medicine is only just beginning to value the curative powers of plants and herbs found in the Amazon rain forests. The story of ethnobotanist Mark Plotkins’s apprenticeship with shaman wise men of the area is truly an anthropological adventure that also vividly clarifies what destruction of the rain forests may ultimately cost humanity.
  • » The Shaman’s Apprentice: A Tale of the Amazon Rain Forest by Lynne Cherry and Mark J. Plotkin (Harcourt Brace & Company, 1998). A story for students in which a lesson about medicinal herbs is brought to life through young Kamanya, who dreams of becoming his tribe’s next shaman.

The Amazon Conservation Team

Support the efforts of this organization where Dr. Plotkin works to protect nature’s resources. When you buy one of Dr. Plotkin’s books through their web site, a percentage of the sale goes to support the organization’s goals.

Save Earth’s biodiversity hotspots

Join Conservation International and support their work in saving our planet’s hotspots, where the greatest number of species and beneficial natural resources are to be found.

Medicinal Plants in North Africa

About 70% of the wild plants in North Africa are known to be of potential value in fields such as medicine, biotechnology and crop improvements. Since 1994, the North Africa Biodiversity Programme (NABP) has aimed at promoting the conservation of biodiversity in North Africa; developing the sustainable use of natural resources; empowering local communities, in particular women, in biodiversity conservation; as well as creating a platform for sharing experiences and exchanging knowledge and information. original lesson

This lesson has been written by a science educator to specifically accompany the above interview. It includes article content and extension questions, as well as activity handouts for different grade levels.

Lesson Title: Nature’s Pharmacy: Killing the Cure?
Levels: high school - undergraduate
Summary: This lesson examines the medicinal benefits of plants. Students can record an oral history of medicinal uses, conduct a lab experiment using spices, make plans for an ethnobotany trip to the Amazon Rainforest… and more!

Download/view lesson. (To open the lesson’s PDF file, you need Adobe Acrobat Reader free software.)

Lessons for middle school

The following links will take you to middle school lessons available on other web sites:

Useful links for educators

Useful links for student research

In addition to the links in the “learn more” section above:


Understanding Science