Special thanks to Kara Rogers for answering 5 questions about her recently featured book – Out of Nature: Why Drugs From Plants Matter to the Future of Humanity
Kara Rogers is a freelance science writer and the senior editor of biomedical sciences at Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. She is the author of Out of Nature: Why Drugs From Plants Matter to the Future of Humanity, which explores the human relationship with nature and its relevance to plant-based natural products drug discovery and the loss of biodiversity. She holds a Ph.D. in Pharmacology/Toxicology and enjoys reading and writing about all things science. – Bio from Scientific American
Author’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/karaerogers
#1 – What was the impetus behind Out of Nature?
With Out of Nature, I wanted to explore the intersection of plant conservation and drug discovery. It is not often that we see those two mentioned together in the same sentence, but they share a very close relationship. Nature is known to be a valuable resource for the discovery of new medicines, including agents that work against infectious organisms, that fight cancer, and that relieve pain. Those types of drugs are some of the world’s most needed medicines, but they also tend to be highly susceptible to resistance or tolerance (the latter in the case of certain pain relievers). Antibiotic resistance has become especially problematic, but new types of antibiotics to replace the ones that have been rendered ineffective through resistance are lacking.
Out of Nature focuses specifically on plants as sources of natural products, because humans have used plants for food and medicine for millennia. In the modern era, plant products have played a key role in the development of reliable and highly effective drugs, among them anticancer agents (e.g., taxol and the vinca alkaloids) and pain relievers (e.g., morphine). However, significant numbers of plant species are now threatened with extinction. That situation has come about for a multitude of reasons, although I think many of them stem from a basic disconnect between humans and nature. If we allow that disconnect to continue to grow, as it I think has over the last century, then we risk losing opportunities for drug discovery.
#2 – Why is biodiversity important when we are talking about the future of drugs?
The greater the diversity of species in the world, the greater the opportunity for drug discovery. Each species or group of closely related species synthesizes a unique array of chemicals. In nature, those chemicals serve nourishing and protective functions. It often is the latter that is responsible for the bioactive properties of a natural product in humans. It is thought, however, that researchers have investigated only a small fraction of those chemicals. That is where biodiversity, conservation, and drug discovery intersect most obviously. Although the value of undiscovered medicines is difficult to assess, the conservation of biodiversity as a way of protecting opportunities for drug discovery could prove invaluable. Imagine if researchers discovered another antibiotic as effective as penicillin or a new antiviral drug to treat influenza or HIV? The benefit for human life would be immeasurable.
#3 – You use the term ‘biophilia’ in your book. Can you tell us what this means? And how the concept is important in your book?
Biophilia describes our drive to connect with nature and other forms of life. The term is probably best known from the work of E.O. Wilson, who in the 1980s suggested that our propensity to associate with nature and other living organisms stems in part from our genetic programming. Humans, in other words, evolved in close relationship with nature, and even though that relationship has changed fundamentally in many parts of the world, with a greater separation between people and wild species, many people still exhibit measurable physiological responses when confronted with natural phenomena. For example, people who spend time in a room with a window that looks out on a natural setting experience accelerated recovery from minor stresses compared with people who spend time in rooms without windows but with television displays of those same natural settings. In other cases, people have genuine biophobias, experiencing fight-or-flight-like responses in the presence of large predatory animals, for example.
I invoke biophilia in Out of Nature because the human connection to the natural world is fundamental to our interest in exploring and protecting nature. There has been some speculation that our innate drive to connect with nature has weakened, particularly so since the development of certain technological advances. For example, enclosed structures built from materials such as concrete and vehicles that transport us from one place to another physically separate us from nature. A great many people in the world now spend most of their time inside those structures, and until recently, that confinement and the human pursuit of continued development I think facilitated a disinterest in the loss of species. Throughout the 20th century, development accelerated in many countries worldwide, and plants and animals were disappearing at unprecedented rates. But the association between our activities and species loss really only began to be recognized around the middle of that century. Considering that we now have a better understanding of how our behaviors affect nature, I think it is vitally important that we work to rebuild our interest in the natural world. Doing so could help cultivate a greater awareness of and appreciation for the life around us, which is necessary for the success of biodiversity conservation and, in turn, the discovery of new medicines from nature.
#4 – Your book ends on an optimistic note for biodiversity and medicine. What makes you so optimistic?
People are working to protect nature. That is why I think there is reason to be optimistic about the future of the world’s biodiversity. Yes, the environment is facing perhaps irreversible alteration from factors such as climate change and disturbance from other human-associated threats, but so too are increasing areas of land being set aside for species conservation. Plants are receiving increased protection through endangered species acts and efforts such as the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GPSC), which is intended to prevent the extinction of plant species and to promote benefits sharing between entities such as drug companies and the indigenous peoples who originated plant uses of commercial interest.
It is also important to keep in mind that while many plant species are threatened with extinction, plants in general are amazingly resilient organisms. They are full of surprises, especially when it comes to strategies for survival. While we cannot rely on those strategies alone to see all our extant species of plants into the future, it seems reasonable to think that nature will land on some successful solutions along the way, so long as we secure sufficient time for adaptational processes.
#5 – Do you have any new projects/books that you can tell us about?
I’m currently writing and illustrating a second book, the focus of which is on rare and threatened plants in North America. While writing Out of Nature, I was struck by how infrequently plants on my home continent were discussed, even though we have many species here that are of tremendous value, medicinally and culturally. This next book, in fact, focuses largely on the significance of native plants to our natural heritage here in North America. I find that dimension of North America’s native species to be especially fascinating, and I’m looking forward to sharing with readers, here and abroad, the stories of some of those plants.
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