An Amazonian Treasure Trove
A group of Yale undergraduates have discovered dozens of potentially beneficial bioactive microorganisms within plants they collected in the Amazon rain forest, including several so genetically distinct that they may be the first members of new taxonomical genera.
The 135 endophytes--fungal and bacterial microorganisms living within the inner tissue of plants--discovered by members of the Rain Forest Expedition and Laboratory course at Yale were collected during a 2007 trip to Peru organized by Scott Strobel, chair of the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale, with a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
The ability of 15 untrained students to find and culture such a novel collection of organisms, many of which are biologically active, illustrates the vast scientific potential of tropical areas, Strobel said.
"The sheer amount of diversity the students discovered surprised everybody,'' Strobel said. "We have only just begun to tap the potential of these microorganisms. Our undergraduates have given us a peek at the treasure these habitats hold and we need to move quickly to preserve them."
The students collected the specimens in March 2007 and spent much of the next six months isolating and culturing the organisms, sequencing their DNA, and screening them for biological activity. Nearly half of the organisms analyzed showed evidence of bioactivity.
Endophytes remain relatively unstudied by scientists, however their potential value was illustrated more than a decade ago when the blockbuster cancer drug taxol was isolated from a fungal endophyte collected from a Pacific Yew tree. …