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Increasing plant extinction threatens the future of medicine and human health

Researchers have uncovered yet another crisis that is developing from the negative impact of climate change on the global plant kingdom. So many plants currently face extinction that humanity could lose half of all future medicines that would be developed from those vanishing plant species.

Plant-based medicines

It’s been estimated that over 25% of prescription drugs contain plant-derived ingredients. Plants provide a vast source of naturally occurring, biologically active substances, many of which are known to have therapeutic effects.

A recent study suggests we may lose the medicinal benefits offered by the plant kingdom if we, as a species, don’t act now to reverse this devasting trend and save the endangered plant species around the world.

Losing known plants and unknown medicines

The report, which was based on the findings of different teams of Kew scientists, contains many discoveries about the universe’s current plant population and how they are being threatened.

“The estimates indicate that 45% of all known flowering plant species could be under threat of extinction,” the report noted.

The most threatened plant groups are Orchidaceae (orchids): Piperaceae, which includes black pepper; Bromeliaceae, which includes pineapple; and Araceae, which includes many important crops.

Facing extinction before being discovered

Although about 350,000 species of vascular plants have been identified and named, we still have about 100,000 yet to be formally named. Scientists fear that most of these yet-to-be-described plants are also at risk of extinction. 

“New estimates suggest as many 3 in 4 undescribed vascular plants are likely to be already threatened with extinction,” wrote the researchers.

Based on these projections, it is most likely that new plant species discoveries will also be at risk of extinction by the time they are found, or even before we know they existed.

2.5 million species of fungi

Fungi include microscopic organisms, like yeasts, molds, and mushrooms. Like plants, they offer valuable potential sources of useful medicinal compounds. Scientists believe there are about 2.5 million species of fungi across the world, but most of these are unknown. 

Despite their diversity, only 155,000 fungal species have been formally named, with 10,200 of these coming in the past three years. At this rate, it would take about a thousand years to describe them all. 

Identify and investigate

What is the way forward? The first step is to intensify our efforts to name and describe more plant and fungal species across the world.

This is especially important, considering that many of the new discoveries waiting to be made could be important sources of food, medicine, chemicals, and enzymes with useful properties such as plastic degradation.

Dr. Tuula Niskanen, former research leader in Accelerated Taxonomy at RBG Kew, shared this sentiment.  

“Without knowing what species there are and having names for them, we won’t be able to share information on the key aspects of species’ diversity, make any assessments of species’ conservation status to know whether they are at risk from extinction, or explore their potential to benefit people and society,” said Dr. Niskanen.

Reclassifying new species

Scientists have also called for newly described species to be classified as threatened. The belief is that prioritizing these threatened species over others on the IUCN Red List will speed up their full assessments and aid conservation efforts.

Dr. Matilda Brown, a researcher in Conservation Assessment and Analysis at RBG Kew, said: “Ideally, partnerships between taxonomists and experienced conservation assessors would aim to describe and assess species simultaneously to maximize opportunities for effective conservation action.”

“In the meantime, if accepted, our recommendation could aid in the protection of many tens of thousands of undescribed threatened species by treating them as threatened as soon as they become known to us.”

Plant-based medicines are nature’s gift

Finally, it is important to secure the natural world’s pharmaceutical treasure trove. We must protect these species and the future of medicine for generations to come.

Over 200 scientists across 102 institutions worldwide contributed to the report titled “The State of the World’s Plants and Fungi.” It has been published on the RBG Kew website. 

More about the use of plants in medicine

Plants have served as the foundation for human health and well-being for thousands of years. They not only provide us with oxygen, food, and shelter but also offer a vast array of medicinal properties. Here, we’ll expand upon the previous statements and dive into the beneficial aspects of plants in treating various ailments.

Plants act as powerful healers

Willow Bark relieves pain: Long before the invention of aspirin, people chewed the bark of willow trees to reduce fever and inflammation. The active ingredient, salicin, when consumed, converts into salicylic acid in the human body, working to alleviate pain and reduce inflammation.

Aloe Vera soothes burns: Almost everyone knows the immediate relief aloe vera gel brings to sunburns. Aloe vera contains compounds that moisturize, heal, and reduce inflammation, making it a must-have for any first aid kit.

Turmeric reduces inflammation: Turmeric, a golden-hued spice, houses a compound named curcumin. This compound has powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Consuming turmeric helps combat chronic inflammation, potentially reducing the risk of chronic diseases.

Plants boost immunity and health

Echinacea fights colds: Many people turn to echinacea at the first sign of a cold. Studies suggest this plant can help boost the immune system and may reduce the severity and duration of cold symptoms.

Ginger eases digestive woes: Ginger root has been a remedy for stomach upset for centuries. Whether you’re battling motion sickness or morning sickness, sipping ginger tea can provide relief due to its anti-nausea properties.

Plants aid mental well-being

Lavender calms the mind: The sweet scent of lavender has long been associated with relaxation and sleep. Essential oils derived from lavender flowers can alleviate anxiety, stress, and even mild pain.

St. John’s Wort fights depression: For those facing mild to moderate depression, St. John’s Wort offers a natural remedy. Its active compounds interact with brain chemicals that regulate mood.

Safety first when using plants as medicine

While plants offer incredible healing properties, it’s essential to use them wisely. Not all plants are safe for every individual, and some may interact negatively with prescribed medications. Before experimenting with the world of medicinal plants, always consult with a healthcare provider or herbalist.

Plants play a pivotal role in the realm of both natural and pharmaceutical medicine. As researchers continue to explore their potential, we gain a deeper appreciation for nature’s ability to heal and nourish our bodies. As we harness the power of plants, we find pathways to holistic health and well-being.

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