BioPerspectives

Feb 29, 2012

Ancient Plants May Be Source of New Medicines

  • The recent report that a group of Russian researchers was able to regrow a plant that had not seen the light of day for 32,000 years drew great, and well deserved, interest from around the globe. Previously, the oldest similar achievement was the growth of a date palm from a 2,000-year-old seed found in Israel.

    Working with an arctic flower named Silene stenophylla, the Russians extracted cells from the placenta, an organ found in the fruit that makes plant seeds, and cultured the antediluvian materials until they became entire plants. The plant fruits and seeds had been buried more than 100 feet under the banks of a river in Siberia. The researchers were able to carry out their project because the seeds and fruits had been protected by permafrost.

    While this scientific advance is immensely noteworthy in its own right, the Russian team’s huge botanical success portends other potential opportunities. For instance, investigators from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil estimate that 25% of the world’s prescribed drugs come from plants. Dr. Gordon Cragg from NCI has noted that many analgesics, muscle relaxants, anticancer, antihypertensive, antimalarial, cardiotonic, and memory-enhancing drugs are derived from plants.

    What is particularly exciting about the Russian project is that it opens the door to the potential discovery of new drugs from ancient plant sources. As the earth continues to experience global warming, increasing numbers of acres of land will be liberated from layers of permafrost. My educated guess is that novel varieties of plant material long buried under the ice and snow will begin to show up. Hopefully, some of these plants will lead to the development of new therapeutics.

    I am especially excited by the possibility that unique antibiotics may be found as research on newly discovered primeval plants moves forward. With the growing incidence of antibiotic-resistant microorganisms plaguing medical practice, the introduction and use of novel antibiotics that come from ancient plants and are unfamiliar to many modern bacteria and viruses will be most welcome.

    In summary, the Russian revival of a 32,000-year-old plant can be viewed as both a bioarcheological miracle and a plausible biomedical leap forward.


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