Is bioprocessing moving out of the forest? In 2022, I reported on a new approach to making camptothecin. Although that chemotherapeutic was originally harvested from China’s happy tree (Camptotheca acuminata), Ashraf S.A. El-Sayed, PhD, professor of mycology and molecular biology at Zagazig University in Egypt, and his colleagues described a way to obtain camptothecin from a marine fungus.

Then, just two weeks ago, I wrote about finding new ways to bioprocess therapies instead of extracting them from plants. No matter how much the bioprocessing industry might like to completely forgo the need to harvest natural products to make biopharmaceuticals, scientists keep finding sources in nature that can’t be ignored. So, maybe there is a technological pathway that leads bioprocessing away from forests, but that road appears to follow many switchbacks.

For example, El-Sayed is not done finding new ways to collect camptothecin. Recently, he and his colleagues reported on a process that relies on a forest fungus (Aspergillus terreus), which is an endophyte of the Madagascar periwinkle plant (Catharanthus roseus)—itself a source of chemotherapeutic compounds. Work by other scientists found that cultured fungal cells start to produce less-potent compounds.

So, El-Sayed’s team gathered samples of C. roseus from the Botanical Garden of Zagazig University, processed the plant cells to collect A. terreus, isolated fungal cells that produce camptothecin, and developed a bioprocess that optimized the nutrition needed by the fungal cells to maximize their production of camptothecin. Through this method, plus adding the C. roseus’ microbiome, El-Sayed’s team produced fungal cultures that keep producing potent camptothecin. These scientists concluded that this could be “a platform for industrial production of [camptothecin], with an affordable sustainability.”

Work like this shows that scientists continue to scour nature for better biopharmaceuticals. Plus, El-Sayed is not alone. For instance, Madrid-based PharmaMar searches the seas for better cancer treatments. Although advances in bioprocessing can reduce the need to rely on nature, many scientists know that some of tomorrow’s best treatments still lurk undetected in a jungle, ocean, or even a botanical garden.

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