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Extreme Botany

Could the rainforests of Latin America hold the keys to preventing disease or ending the world’s dependence on fossil fuels?

Dr. Gary Strobel is certainly one of the most intriguing prospectors working on the planet today. Typically, his expeditions require no more equipment than a pocketknife and the colorful stocking cap he wears on his head (which doubles as a container for collecting specimens). Yet his discoveries are lifesaving and revolutionary.

Strobel, a scientist working at the University of Montana, has already been the subject of a fascinating documentary, “Jewels of the Jungle,” which follows the professor as he searches for “biogems”— rare and valuable plants and endophytes containing extraordinary chemical properties. In fact, beneficial endophytes —host-friendly bacteria or fungi growing inside trees and other vegetation—are at the top of the botanist’s wish list.

According to Strobel, “an endophyte that coexists symbiotically with another living organism, such as a healthy tree, is compatible with higher forms of life. Therefore, it is more likely not to have the kind of toxicity to animals and humans that is often characteristic of synthetically produced drugs.” The advantages do not end with the elimination of noxious side effects: Endophytes are invariably easier and cheaper to harvest than entire trees (such as the Pacific yew, which yields taxol, effective in combating breast cancer).

Now in his 70s, the veteran explorer who has scoured the rainforests of 15 different countries in Central and South America shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, in addition to his painstaking hunting in the field, always followed by exhaustive research conducted in his laboratory thousands of miles further north, he has another goal: recruiting and training the next generation of bio-prospectors.

“I am about the only person doing this,” Strobel notes. “I have enlisted colleagues with whom I analyze the compounds extracted from the endophytes I collect. Together, we inform others of our findings. But we need greater numbers of trained personnel to gather raw material, and we need more funding for fieldwork.”

Why does Strobel return time after time to Latin American rainforests? “Experience has shown that high biodiversity means a greater chance of finding new compounds in nature,” he explains. “There is greater biodiversity in tropical rainforests, because the temperature and humidity facilitate prolific plant and microbial growth.”

Thus, when Strobel considers criteria for choosing an area for prospecting, he looks for significant biodiversity, a long history of human habitation and the presence of native healers with knowledge of local medicinal plants.

“I have been amazed at the wisdom of some cultures that can identify natural cures for all sorts of disorders,” Strobel says. The 21st-century scientist looks to folklore passed down by indigenous healers over centuries when looking for plants with healing properties; he becomes the link between lamentably fast-disappearing traditional methods and modern medical breakthroughs.

Since the 1990s, a number of Strobel’s discoveries have been licensed for uses such as more effective treatment of human waste. “This technology holds tremendous promise for the developing world, where diseases resulting from poor sanitary conditions are among the leading causes of death,” he observes.
These days, Strobel is most excited about prospects for a fungal fuel, and the wide-ranging applications of a particularly potent biological germ-killer.

“In Chile’s Alerce Forest,” Strobel relates, “we found an endophyte whose hydrocarbon profile contains compounds normally associated with diesel fuel; we have dubbed the volatiles of this fungus ‘myco-diesel.’ It can be used like ethanol to replace and stretch fossil fuels—but it is cheaper and faster to produce.”
Meanwhile, Strobel continues, “an endophytic fungus of wild pineapple growing in the Bolivian Amazon Basin produces mixtures lethal to human and plant pathogens, including several drug-resistant strains.” Strobel foresees beneficial ramifications in the fields of: medicine (treating infections and diseases resistant to existing antibiotics), agriculture (safe, environmentally friendly systemic pesticides, one of which is already being tested on seeds) and industry (anti-microbial paints to prevent mold and rot on structures).
Strobel, recently back from Nicaragua, is off and running again, to the eastern slopes of the Andes in northwest Argentina—uncharted territory, where he hopes the next unique biogem awaits.

-Buzzy Gordon

Photo by NASA Goddard Photo and Video