Jeweler of the Jungle: In the Rainforests of Central and South America, Plant Scientist Gary Strobel Prospects for Microbial Sources of Potentially Lifesaving Drugs

Article excerpt

THE SWATH OF RAINFOREST that extends from Central America southward to the Amazon Basin in Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia is known as the lung of the Western Hemisphere, vital to the replenishment of oxygen in the air we breathe. It is also home to unique plant and animal species, dwindling populations of indigenous peoples-and hidden natural treasures that hold great promise for the future health and well-being of humankind.

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The foremost prospector for these "biogems" lives thousands of miles away from the nearest rainforest, in the oft-frigid climes of Bozeman, Montana. There, professor emeritus Gary Strobel researches and teaches in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology at Montana State University (MSU). When he is not in Bozeman, the 69-year-old scientist is likely leading an expedition through a tropical rainforest, mentoring younger colleagues and students in the art of finding and correctly harvesting that rarest of prizes: the next plant that could yield a medicinal drug with the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives.

In his signature red stocking cap, which doubles as a container for collecting plant specimens--the original now belongs to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History--Strobel resembles a landlubber Jacques Cousteau, while his machete lends a touch of Indiana Jones. Fittingly, Strobel even stars in his own movie--an hour-long documentary called Jewels of the Jungle, filmed mostly in the rainforests of South America and Australia in 2005 and 2006. Funded by the National Science Foundation, it aired on public television across the United States this year.

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A memorable moment in the documentary occurs when Strobel signs a contract for one of his discoveries and returns to the Aboriginal group that had guided him to the find, in order to have them cosign the document so they can share in any future profits. His recognition of the indigenous populations who teach him about their traditional medicines make him a role model for other scientists and researchers. Strobel holds many patents jointly with MSU for innovations he and his team developed in the university's laboratories.

One of the most important of these patents is the result of a discovery he made in Honduras, in a rainforest reserve near La Ceiba called Jardin Botanico Lancetilla.

"In the late 1980s," the scientist recalls, "I was called to Central America to work on the problem of black sigatoka, a catastrophic banana plantation disease. To this day, the expense of combating it adds an additional third to the cost of growing, harvesting, and exporting bananas." Strobel returned to Honduras in 1997 to continue the search for a natural antidote to black sigatoka, but he decided to spend time doing his own exploring as well. This time, he found something unexpected: a cinnamon tree native to Ceylon. "It had been brought over to Honduras by a German a hundred years earlier, to see ff it would flourish in Central America. I took branch samples from this tree, along with a dozen or so cuttings from other plants that may also host fungi."

He explains that scientists look for endophytes--microbes such as bacteria and fungi growing inside trees and other vegetation--for several reasons. "These endophytes may possess beneficial properties. The fungi may provide an easy access to products that are useful in agriculture, medicine, and industry. In fact, they are easier to deal with than the plants themselves. Thus, it is much faster and cheaper down the road to harvest endophytic fungi than entire trees, if prospects look good for any medical or other application."

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As an example, Strobel points to his work in the 1990s with the anti-cancer drug taxol. Derived from the Pacific yew tree, taxol was "the drug of choice" for treating breast cancer at that time, he notes. …

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