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The Importance of Biodiversity to Medicine

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Scientists discover new species all the time. And every new species has something to offer us.

Dr. Aaron Bernstein's paper, The Importance of Biodiversity to Medicine, explores the different ways in which these species, and others that are endangered now, could be tapped for biomedical and pharmaceutical research.

Bernstein writes, "When it comes to biodiversity—a term that describes the variety of life on the planet—the more scientists look, the more they find. But these discoveries represent far more than just novelty. In them can be found a major engine of advancement for medicine and biomedical research and a new lens with which to look on human health and disease."

Biodiversity plays a crucial role in medicine as it provides the foundation for the development of numerous pharmaceuticals and medical treatments. The diversity of life on Earth, from plants to microbes, has the potential to provide us with valuable chemicals that can be used to treat a wide variety of illnesses and diseases.

Many of the medicines we use today are derived from natural sources, such as plants, animals, and microorganisms. For example, the painkiller morphine comes from the opium poppy, and the anti-cancer drug paclitaxel is derived from the Pacific yew tree. Even common antibiotics, such as penicillin, were originally discovered in microorganisms.

Biodiversity is also important for the development of new medicines. Scientists are constantly exploring the natural world in search of new compounds that can be used to treat diseases. For example, the Madagascar periwinkle, a plant found only on the island of Madagascar, contains two alkaloids that are used to treat leukemia and Hodgkin's disease.

In addition to providing us with medicines, biodiversity also plays a key role in the development of medical technologies. For example, scientists have developed new surgical techniques based on the study of the biomechanics of animal movements, and researchers are exploring the potential of spider silk for use in medical devices.

However, biodiversity is currently facing unprecedented threats from habitat destruction, climate change, pollution, and other factors. If we do not take action to protect and preserve biodiversity, we risk losing potential sources of life-saving medicines and medical technologies. Therefore, it is essential that we work to conserve and protect biodiversity, not only for the sake of the natural world but also for the future of medicine.

Howard E. Stanton, MD

Howard Stanton, M.D., is a practicing internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

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