5 rainforest species that could save your life

Researchers collect symbiotic moths from the fur of a three-toed sloth in southern Guyana’s Konashen Community-Owned Conservation Area. (© Piotr Naskrecki)

Researchers collect symbiotic moths from the fur of a three-toed sloth in southern Guyana’s Konashen Community-Owned Conservation Area. Recent research in Panama has identified several types of fungi growing in sloth fur that could help fight human diseases. (© Piotr Naskrecki)

In the time it takes you to read this sentence, several football fields worth of rainforest have been destroyed. Another 2,000 trees will be cut down in the next 55 seconds. This is bad news for many reasons, including the fact that many species native to rainforests hold the potential to save countless human lives. Here are five of them.

1. Disease-curing sloths

The three-toed sloth hides an entire ecosystem along its body. These animals move so slowly through the rainforest that green algae grows in their fur, creating an ideal environment for microorganisms, bacteria and fungi.

Scientists collected fungi samples from sloths living in Panama’s Soberanía National Park and tested them for utility in combatting diseases. Of the 84 extracts tested, several fungi types were found to be highly bioactive, capable of halving the growth rate of parasites and cancer cells. Two of them were effective in combatting malaria; eight were effective against Trypanosoma cruzi, the parasite responsible for the potentially life-threatening Chagas disease; and 15 combatted human breast cancer cells.

This discovery could offer an especially promising step to curing Chagas disease, since current treatment is limited to two compounds with highly toxic side effects.

Sunset in Xingu National Park, Brazil

Sunset in Brazil’s Xingu National Park. (© Luana Luna)

2. Plastic-eating fungi

Found everywhere from the stomachs of sea turtles to birds, plastic has long been seen as a threat to animals across the globe. It’s not biodegradable, it’s killed critters in nearly every biome and it certainly isn’t edible. Or is it?

A rare species of fungi in Ecuador’s Amazonian rainforest called Pestalotiopsis microspora is capable of consuming polyurethane, which is commonly used in elastomers, including plastics. However, the fungus may be capable of more than just breaking it down. Research is currently underway to see if this fungus can feed people as well. By filling mushroom-like pods of agar with both plastic and the fungi, scientists can create an edible mushroom cup that can be filled with other foods or eaten whole. The taste has been described as “sweet or licorice-like.”

While not as direct as, say, the cure for cancer, P. microspora can still save lives by reducing plastic waste and pollution, which in turn lessens the amount of toxic compounds we consume when we eat animals that have ingested plastics.

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3. Malaria-fighting trees

Encompassing approximately 40 different species, cinchona trees native to the Amazonian slopes of the Andes have been widely lauded for their ability to fight malaria and are now cultivated in tropical regions across the globe. After being stripped from the tree, the bark is dried and ground into a powder, which in turn becomes a key ingredient in the anti-malarial drug quinine. The bark on the trees regrows over time, making it a renewable resource.

One of the five leading protists responsible for malaria in humans, the parasite Plasmodium falciparum, has developed immunity to other malarial drugs — in some cases even within a year of that drug’s introduction. However, even after centuries of use, quinine continues to be effective against the disease.

With more than 3 billion people at risk of malaria, conserving cinchona trees and the habitats where they grow is a necessity. Indigenous groups such as the Quechua in Peru and Ecuador have long used cinchona bark to treat hypothermia and fever. The tree has also been used to treat anemia, varicose veins and arrhythmia.

Although the fer-de-lance is one of the most dangerous snakes in Central and South America, its venom could hold the key to saving millions of human lives. (© Flickr Peter Nijenhuis/Creative Commons)

Although the fer-de-lance is one of the most dangerous snakes in Central and South America, its venom could hold the key to saving millions of human lives. (© Flickr Peter Nijenhuis/Creative Commons)

4. Blood-regulating snakes

One of the most feared venomous snakes in Central and South America, the fer-de-lance may seem like a strange entry for this list, as it is responsible for about half of all venomous snakebites. The viper’s venom causes a massive drop in blood pressure in humans, which can result in numerous side effects, including death.

To learn more, Brazilian biochemists, England’s Royal College of Surgeons and a pharmaceutical company called Squibb collaborated to determine which chemical in the fer-de-lance’s venom lowered blood pressure. They used that chemical to develop the drug Captopril, which has been instrumental in saving people from hypertension or high blood pressure. Researchers estimate that by 2025, 1.5 billion people worldwide will have hypertensive heart disease, meaning that fer-de-lances could help save more lives in the coming years than ever before.

5. Cancer-beating trees

Lapacho, a pink-flowered Amazonian tree also known as pau d’arco, has been touted as a kind of wonder drug. Often such catch-all claims are dubious, but in lapacho’s case it may be true. While further study is still warranted, two bioactive components in lapacho — lapachol and beta lapachone — have been linked by the U.S. National Cancer Institute to combatting cancer, particularly leukemia, and reducing tumors. It has also been used locally to treat infections, fevers, syphilis and malaria.

The Lapacho Tree or pau d'arco is believed to serve a number of medicinal purposes, including fighting leukemia. (© Flickr/Creative Commons)

The lapacho tree (also known as the pau d’arco) of the Amazon rainforest is believed to serve a number of medicinal uses, including fighting leukemia. (© Flickr/Creative Commons)

Saving nature’s pharmacy

Approximately 80 percent of the developing world continues to heavily rely on traditional medicines like plants for their health and well-being. What’s even more remarkable than the life-saving ability of these species? The fact that our knowledge of the rainforests’ contents just scratches the surface.

Despite covering only a small percentage of the Earth’s surface, rainforests contain more than half of the world’s known species. About 70 percent of the world’s plant species recognized as useful in cancer treatments are only found in rainforests, and that’s with only a fraction of its plants documented by science.

If deforestation continues at its current rate, it will soon trigger irreversible changes in rainforest ecosystems. In South America’s Amazonia region, for example, scientists have estimated that this tipping point will occur when around 30 percent of the area’s original forest cover is gone. If that is allowed to happen, humanity will lose the opportunity to discover new species that could revolutionize our medicine and save even more lives.

Ben Koses is an intern for Conservation International.

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