July 16, 2008

Bugs lead to plant teachers

Aoshima Chiho - click the picture to enlarge, the name to know more

Haven't given up / disappeared, just busy at work and then relaxing away from the machine when things are done. To keep my hand in here's something from Scientific American:

Natural toxins in plants can fight human diseases. Research shows that when looking for promising plants, a telltale clue is the presence of brightly colored insects.

In the insect world, bright reds, oranges and yellows can be a warning: “Eat me at your own risk, pal.” Because colorful bugs can be toxic, they often get their chemical protection from nibbling poisonous plants. But these poisons can have a flip side for us—some fight cancer or tropical parasites that cause diseases like malaria.

The idea that colorful bugs can tip us off to disease-fighting plants isn’t new. But researchers at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute just backed it up with science, in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. They chose ten plant species that kill parasites and cancer in lab tests, and ten species that look similar but do nothing. Then they headed into the Panamanian jungle to survey hundreds of these plants for beetles and caterpillars. Turns out, they found colorful bugs on almost all the toxic plants but less than half of the harmless plants. And black, brown and gray bugs didn’t have a preference—they ate indiscriminately. So modern-day shamans scouring the jungle for cancer-fighting drugs might just cut down on search time by keeping an eye out for brightly colored bugs.

Full podcast on this and related links can be found here.

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