Monday, May 7, 2012

Human Health and Biodiversity: an intangible correlation.

The history of our world is greatly a mystery to our species. Curiosity has inspired us to discover and understand the enigma that is our environment, yet much of its inner workings remain elusive. At this moment in history gathered knowledge about our planet has made one truth fathomable by many: Earth’s ecosystems are at risk. Steep and wide-ranging population declines hint that the Earth’s populations are nearing a sixth mass extinction. This mass extinction may not be noticeable to the people of today. But future generations will be acutely aware of the environment’s failing health. Can we quantify or qualify the imminent loss of biodiversity?

I will not attempt to answer this question, as many have tried. To elucidate our reliance on the biodiversity and health of the Earth, I will talk about a medicinal discovery that has greatly helped humanity.

In the 1950s it was discovered that periwinkle and mayapple plants had medicinal benefits. Their effectiveness in treating leukemia and vaginal warts influenced the National Cancer Institute to form a coalition to screen and test plants for anti-tumor potential. This coalition led to the identification of the Pacific Yew, Taxus brevifolia, as a precious antidote in cancer treatment. An understory tree that grows in the Pacific West spanning Alaska to California and Montana, the Pacific Yew was once thought to be a “trash tree” with little use to humans. It was often cut and burned in slash piles. After years of extraction and purification– the drug Taxol was isolated from the bark of the tree once thought of as a useless annoyance. Clinical trials have shown that the drug effectively treats cancer mainly of the breast, lung or ovaries. In 1998 sales of Taxol amounted to 1.2 billion dollars. 

Cancer is a dreadful disease that plagues our species and has been witnessed first hand or indirectly by many individuals. Its wide-range of victims makes the aim to discover a cure a common goal within our society. However, much of society is unaware of the significance of sustaining biodiversity and the consequential need for a healthy ecosystem in relation to medicinal research. There may be countless other plants that have similar healing qualities of the Pacific Yew, yet the discovery of those invaluable medicinal benefits may never be obtained if we continue viewing the natural world from a platform of disconnectedness. In general, our Westernized society is obsessed with conventional medicine and has forgotten that Westernized medicine has progressed due to centuries of gathered knowledge of indigenous cultures and peoples whom grew to know by experimentation what plants of the natural world are beneficial. 

The idea of assigning a value to our environment’s health or biodiversity seems ridiculous. Have we become so disconnected from nature that we have forgotten the inherent meaningfulness and importance of the natural world and its functions to our very existence? Our society's disregard for biodiversity and the actions necessary to promote biodiversity make obvious the fact that we are not yet able to appreciate the environment that we are a part of. This disengagement creates an important function of the scientist: one who enlightens the lay community of their invaluable connection and relationship with their surrounding and global environment. Such a process of teaching requires that we shine light on viable interactions between humans and the natural world in a way that resounds within the individual.
As you go forth in your studies, and as the future generation of scientists - remember not to become too fascinated with the technology of society or overly assured of your  cognizance of the natural world. For it can distract you from fully recognizing and appreciating the natural fruition of the Earth.   
Sources Cited
≥ Alves, Rômulo. "Biodiversity, traditional medicine and public health: where do they meet?." Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine. March 14. 2007.  <>.  

≥ Klingaman, Gerald. "Plant of the Week: Pacific Yew." Feb 20. 2004. <>

≥ PubMed Health. "Paclitaxel Injection." <>

≥ Pacific Yew (picture). <>

≥ Pacific Yew Range (picture). <>

≥ Taxol (picture). <>

1 comment:

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