• Question: How can understanding plants help us make medicine?

    Asked by anon-360528 on 30 Mar 2023.
    • Photo: Liz Barron-Majerik

      Liz Barron-Majerik answered on 30 Mar 2023:

      Good question! To give an example, currently about a quarter of medicines we use come from plants that grow in the Amazon rainforest, but so far we have only been able to study about 5% of the plants that are there. Its really important that we continue to study the plants and look after the forest so we can find out what other important plant chemicals are there that we might use in medicine. Different plants produce different chemicals. So a big area like a rainforest is like an encyclopaedia of information. Currently as so much of it is being burned, its like people are tearing pages out of that encyclopaedia before we can read them. And we will never get those pages back. And of course we need the rainforest for other reasons too – such as the absorbing of carbon dioxide and production of oxygen.

    • Photo: Sam Mugford

      Sam Mugford answered on 30 Mar 2023: last edited 30 Mar 2023 9:24 am

      Plants are very skillfull at chemistry. Plants can make some very complicated chemicals, many of these chemicals help defend the plants against insects and diseases.

      Because evolution has helped the plants make the most toxic chemicals, they’re very effective at what they do. Evolution has done the same work that would take chemists years and would cost a lot of money.

      The same reasons that these chemicals are toxic often means they make very good drugs to treat certain diseases, if used in the right dose. For example chemicals called alkaloids from the madagascan periwinkle are poisonous to insects that eat the plant, and also to us, but at the right dose they are used to treat some cancers.