The magic of plants and fungi: 5 species that impacted human medicine

The magic of plants and fungi

5 species that impacted human medicine

The magic of plants and fungi

5 species that impacted human medicine

By Emily Jerome, Digital Engagement Assistant

Biodiversity sustains, protects and heals us. Here are 5 species that impacted human medicine to showcase the magic of plants and fungi.

Hidden amongst biodiversity are species that can heal and protect us. “With around 4,000 species of plants and fungi being scientifically described for the first time every year, the world’s wild ecosystems represent a medicine cabinet of many as-yet-unknown therapeutics” according to the 2020 State of the World’s Plants and Fungi published by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. And we can help return the favour to nature by protecting invaluable ecosystems. This may only be the tip of the iceberg, but here are 5 species that have impacted human medicine to showcase the magic of plants and fungi.

*This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition, treatment and medicines.

1. Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia)

Growing along the western coast of North America is the Pacific yew, a coniferous tree that holds a cancer-fighting compound within its reddish-brown trunk. The medicinal compound paclitaxel (also known as Taxol) can be extracted from the flaky bark of the Pacific yew. It’s used to destroy cancer cells and has been developed for specific chemotherapy treatments including ovarian, cervical, breast, endometrial and AIDS-related Kaposi’s sarcoma. But, the demand for cancer treatment has driven one species, the Himalayan yew tree, to the brink of extinction due to overharvesting. This highlights the delicate balance between harnessing the healing powers of plants and protecting the integrity of their populations.

Close up of pacific yew tree bark
Pacific yew. Photo by Flumehead (CC BY-NC 4.0).

2. Chilean soapbark tree (Quillaja saponaria)

Stashed away in the leaves of Chilean soapbark trees are soapy compounds called saponins. Traditionally, saponins have been used as a detergent but more recently, they’ve been developed to boost the body’s immune reaction to vaccines, called a vaccine adjuvant. When vaccines and adjuvants are used hand-in-hand, the body pumps out more antibodies, the amount of required vaccine is reduced and the vaccine efficacy is potentially increased. The saponin from the Chilean soapbark tree, QS-21, in conjunction with another adjuvant derived from Salmonella bacteria, was used to develop the shingles vaccine, Shingrix. More recently, the QS-21 adjuvant is being integrated into specific COVID-19 vaccines.

Chilean soapbark tree in mountains
Chilean soapbark tree. Photo by José Miguel Infante (CC BY-NC 4.0).

3. Sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua)

Also known as sweet annies, this plant with modest yellow blossoms contains the compound artemisinin and its derivative, artesunate (together, they’re referred to as ARTs). These compounds pack a mean punch as they rapidly kill the parasite responsible for malaria infections. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), ARTs are the recommended antimalarial treatment.

Close up of yellow sweet annie flowers
Sweet wormwood. Photo by Michelle Delaloye (CC BY-NC).

4. Tolypocladium inflatum

Organ transplant surgeries made leaps and bounds thanks to one fantastic fungal species, Tolypocladium inflatum and the compound it produces, cyclosporine A (CsA). In the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was discovered that CsA helps control organ rejection and increases surgery success rates. CsA is an immunosuppressant, therefore helps reduce the body’s immune reaction to the new organ. Only after the discovery and subsequent use of CsA did liver and heart transplants even become possible. Tolypocladium inflatum isn’t the only fungi with magical medical superpowers; other fungi have led to the development of many popular medical drugs, including penicillin and lovastatin (a cholesterol-lowering drug).

Tolypocladium inflatum white fungi
Tolypocladium inflatum. Photo by Richard Tehan(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

5. Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus)

From the glossy leaves of Madagascar periwinkle, the chemical compounds vinblastine and vincristine can be extracted. In the 1950s, Canadian scientists discovered that it inhibits cell division making it a powerful antidote to cancer. Currently, vinblastine and vincristine are used to treat Hodgkin’s lymphoma and leukemia. This superstar plant was even listed as an essential medicine needed for basic healthcare by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Pink flowers of Madagascar periwinkle
Madagascar periwinkle. Photo by Pierivb from Getty Images/Canva.