Sick of hearing about biodiversity?

Sorry to start off with a depressing message, but “without biodiversity there is no future for humanity”. So said an acquaintance of mine, Professor David MacDonald, one of the UK’s foremost academics working on biodiversity. His words are borne out by the publication of the latest global report from the Inter-governmental Panel on Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services (IPBES), a truly comprehensive compilation of the evidence from around the world. We face a huge crisis. This is as big as the climate emergency we’re just waking up to.

Will the IPBES message resonate with world leaders, with business, with society at large?

Biodiversity has value - huge value, when it’s properly accounted for - that’s ecological, social and economic.

Despite this, too few people understand how biodiversity impacts on their daily lives, and this disconnect prevents us from taking the real action that is required; the changes to lifestyles, business practices, national and international policies.

So, what has biodiversity ever done for us?

Well, apart from the obvious - food and clothing - it’s worth considering how plants and animals provide goods and services essential for us to enjoy healthy, happy lives.

Humans use at least 40,000 species of plants and animals every day! So, when scientists estimate that over-harvesting and loss of habitat threatens the survival of over 50,000 currently known medicinal plant species, we should certainly be concerned.

Let’s focus on drugs and medicine, things that we possibly take for granted.

Biodiversity plays vital roles in maintaining human and animal health. A wide variety of plants, animals and fungi are used as medicine, essential vitamins, painkillers etc. Natural products have been recognized and used as medicines by ancient cultures all around the world. Many animals are also known to self-medicate using plants and other materials available to them. More than 60% of the world population relies almost entirely on the plant medicine for primary health care.

The small, un-assuming and slow-growing Pacific yew tree is native to the Pacific Northwest of the USA. This plant is the original source of Paclitaxel, important for treating various cancers.

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The Gila monster, is a lizard found in the drylands of the southwestern US and Mexico, whose saliva is the source of a compound now synthesised as Exenatide, injected by as many as 2 million people for the treatment of Type 2 diabetes. It may also have potential for treating Parkinson’s disease.

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in the valleys of central China, grows an endangered weed called sweet wormwood. This plant is the only source of artemisinin, a drug that is nearly 100 percent effective against malaria. If this plant become extinct, then our ability to control malaria would be diminished.

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Many medicines such as antibiotics and painkillers are cultivated from plant and animal sources and , every day, new discoveries allow for the advancement of medicine and the treatment of diseases. Nearly half of all human pharmaceuticals now in use were originally derived from natural sources.

I’ll bet you’ve got some aspirin in the medicine cupboard at home right now. Well, this ‘evolved’ from a compound found in the bark and leaves of the willow tree and was later marketed by Bayer, as long ago as 1899. 50 years later, scientists identified anti-cancer compounds in the rosy periwinkle, which pharmaceutical heavyweight Eli Lilly later produced to treat leukaemia and Hodgkins disease.

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Aggrastat is one of a number of anticoagulants based on the venom of the saw-scaled viper from the Middle East and Central Asia. Surprised? You shouldn’t be, since millions of people rely on venom to keep their blood pressure in check. A number of venom drugs are now in the pipeline to treat cancer, bacterial infections, and other ailments.

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Clearly then, preserving biodiversity is in our self-interest, and this is particularly true for drug discovery. Its preservation provides a vital link to critically expand the molecular diversity that’s needed for successful future drug discovery efforts. Drug discovery from wild species has always been, and will continue to be one of the most critical for most if not all aspects of health care, disease prevention, and wellness.

Resources and knowledge (both traditional and modern scientific) about the ecology, taxonomy and usage of medicinally important organisms are too precious to squander. Consequently, all drug discovery programs, whether synthetic or natural, need to build sustainability into their research models.

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According to some estimates, our planet is losing at least one important drug every two years. This is exacerbated by the irreversible loss of traditional knowledge on the medicinal use of plants and animals. The extinction of microbes, plants, fungi, and animals is resulting in a loss of molecular diversity. Put together, these losses threaten biomedical research, and in turn, the survival of humans.