“Doctor” Nature in Danger

By Stephen Leahy*

CAPE TOWN, South Africa, May 3 (Tierramérica)

“When we harm nature, we are harming ourselves,” says Aaron Bernstein, a doctor at Harvard Medical School and one of the authors of the upcoming book “Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity“.

Few people realise that our health is directly tied to the health of the natural world,” Bernstein told Tierramérica

Bernstein and Harvard colleague Eric Chivian wrote and edited contributions from more than 100 leading scientists in their new book, published by Oxford University Press and available last May.

Written for a general audience, “Sustaining Life” draws on the latest scientific evidence to make a persuasive case that the current extinction crisis, with species vanishing every day, is a serious threat to humanity equal to, if not greater than, climate change.

Pharmaceuticals, biomedical research, the emergence and spread of infectious diseases, and the production of food, both on land and in the oceans, depend on biodiversity — the rich variety of life on our planet.

The book documents seven groups of endangered species, including sharks, bears, primates and amphibians that are or have the potential to have “tremendous value to medicine and science”.

Among these are cone snails, a tropical species whose venom has tens of thousands of chemicals called peptides, short chains of amino acids. These unique peptides are incredibly powerful molecular probes and used in medical research.

“We’ve learned a great deal about how our brains function by using cone snail peptides,” said Bernstein.

The first new breakthrough in pain medication in years has also come from cone snails.

Thirty-three percent of terminal cancer and HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) patients for whom the strongest opiates were ineffective are now pain-free thanks to a pain-blocking peptide from cone snail venom.

Several other cone snail peptides are in clinical trials to treat diabetes pain, among other aliments, and show great promise, says Bernstein.

Cone snails live only in coral reefs and at least a third to one half of all reefs are in danger of dying off due to a combination of disease, pollution and climate change.

Horseshoe crabs have already provided the basis for detecting contamination in injectible medicines. They have also been crucial in understanding human vision, he says. But with only a limited habitat and the need to lay their eggs on beaches they are vulnerable to pollution and human disturbance.

Amphibians have been the source of new treatments for high blood pressure and potentially new pain killers, and may prevent bacteria from acquiring resistance to anti-biotics — a serious concern throughout the world.

However, amphibians are the most threatened of any group of organisms on the planet, with almost one-third of some 6,000 known species in danger of extinction, and more than 120 believed to have already gone extinct in the past few decades.

Medicines are just a small part of the role biodiversity plays in human well being. Without beneficial insects “most of the land ecosystems of the world would collapse and a good part of humanity would perish with them,” writes Edward O. Wilson, the world-famous Harvard expert on biodiversity in the book’s foreword.

Wilson also notes that four million bacterial species can be found in one ton of fertile soil and that most of cells in our bodies “are not human but bacterial: 700 species live within our mouths alone.”

See complete story “Doctor” Nature

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