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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Temperate Forest Biopreserve

Air Date: Week of

A land preserve is being planned in Ithaca, New York that would be the first known temperate forest biopreserve with chemical prospecting for pharmaceutical plants in mind. Tatiana Schreiber reports on the hopes of what may be gained from the project, who is formulating it, and why.


CURWOOD: If you have had ovarian cancer, you may have been given the drug Taxol to help fight the disease. Taxol, which has earned hundreds of millions of dollars in sales so far for its manufacturer, Bristol-Myers Squibb, was originally derived from the bark of the yew tree, which grows in the Pacific Northwest. We tend to think of richly diverse tropical rainforests as the sources for natural medicinals, but some of the most commercially valuable drugs, including Taxol, are found in the temperate forests of the United States. These resources have gone largely unexplored. That will soon change if efforts to establish the world's first temperate zone biodiversity preserve are successful. Tatiana Schreiber explains.



SAM: Well, you know wild celery?


SAM: I found one of those things where it was sitting on wild celery...

SCHREIBER: In his circle of family and friends, Dr. Tom Eisner is known as the Bug Man. In the scientific community he is known for coining the term "chemical prospecting." This is the process of combing nature for potentially useful chemicals.

(Footfalls through tall grasses)

EISNER: Well if you seem to come up on a plant where the leaves are not injured by insects, that tells you something. It tells you that the leaves must be filled with some kind of chemical that wards off insects. Well, a chemical that might repel insects in the plant could secondarily inhibit the growth of cells, and by so doing could be used for the control of the growth of tumors. In other words, could be used as an anti-cancer agent. You never know what hidden dimensions there are to some chemical that evolved in nature for one purpose or the other.

SCHREIBER: A researcher at Cornell University, Eisner in 1991 helped develop a compact between the nation of Costa Rica, a private biodiversity institute located there called Inbio, and the US-based Merck Pharmaceutical Company. The groundbreaking agreement allows Merck to collect natural products from Costa Rica's conserved wildlands as potential sources of new drugs. In exchange, Merck gave Imbio more than a million dollars of research money and agreed to return a percentage of any profits made to Costa Rica, specifically for conservation efforts. Now, Dr. Eisner is forging a similar arrangement closer to home. A proposal between Cornell, the Finger Lakes Land Trust, and one or more pharmaceutical partners, would establish the nation's first temperate zone biodiversity preserve just 12 miles south of Ithaca.

EISNER: And as soon as we're off the road -- oh God, it's gorgeous.

DEMUNN : Isn't this incredible? It's this whole area that you see.

SCHREIBER: Eisner and forest ecologist Mike Demunn gaze across a sea of goldenrod to a small pond and beyond to a marsh in a steep forested ridge. This 250-acre site contains just about every kind of temperate zone habitat in the Finger Lakes region. There are lakes, beaver ponds, high and low elevation forests, rich glacial soils and bare rock, swamps and grass land. An important tributary into Cayuga Lake runs through the area, and some 110 bird species have been counted here so far.

HODGE: Pretty dry in here.

EISNER: Mm hm.

SCHREIBER: To the casual observer it's a beautiful spot. But to researchers like Kathie Hodge it's treasure.

HODGE: Oyster mushrooms!

EISNER: All right! Good!

SCHREIBER: Hodge is a graduate student at Cornell. She studies mushrooms and she figures out how to name and place newly-discovered fungi according to their species and genera.

HODGE: Oh, no, they're not. What are they? [The group laughs] They're not oyster mushrooms! See again, when you turn them over? They don't have gills on the bottom; they have pores.

SCHREIBER: Hodge is looking for oyster mushrooms, so she can show me the way they secrete a toxic liquid that paralyzes certain kinds of worms as they crawl by. Then the fungi grow into the worms and devour them. It's chemical interactions like these that provide the clues to compounds that may one day become useful drugs.

(Sounds echoing indoors)

HODGE: These are big tanks of liquid nitrogen. So I'm going to open it and there's going to be, like, a cloud of smoke's going to come out. Don't worry.

SCHREIBER: Back at her lab Hodge shows me another fungus found in the area.

HODGE: So now we're looking really up close at the cyclosporin fungus, and we can see a lot of spores floating around the kind of the dark circles here. And it's squeezing out the spores.

SCHREIBER: In its sexually reproducing phase, the spores of this fungus may land on an insect. If they do, they quickly multiply, taking over the insect's body. This stage of the organism's life cycle hadn't been seen before, and it's significant because this is the same mold that produces cyclosporin, an immuno-suppressant used to prevent rejection during organ transplants.

HODGE: We know what it is now, so we know what's related to it. So if we're looking for similar drugs to cyclosporin we can look among those fungi that are close relatives and have a better chance of finding another cyclosporin type drug.

SCHREIBER: And that could mean big profits for a drug manufacturer. Still, chemical prospecting remains a big risk for pharmaceutical companies. Dr. Ashit Ganguli is Vice President for Research at Shering-Plough.

GANGULI: The number of samples that you have to examine to get anything worthwhile is huge. And then the development process associated with getting to a stage where it can be commercialized, it takes a lot of time, effort, and money. And so when all this is said and done, you most probably take, from the time you found something interesting until it becomes a drug, perhaps 7, 10 years.

SCHREIBER: Despite the risk, Shering-Plough is interested in developing a relationship with Cornell for collection in the Ithaca preserve. The reason, Ganguli says, is that synthetic methods will never completely replace nature when it comes to designing drugs. He points out that half of all pharmaceuticals currently on the market are derived from natural sources. Cornell is hoping that pharmaceutical partners like Schering-Plough will provide research fellowships and technical training for students. Meanwhile, the Finger Lakes Land Trust is looking to secure up to 3% of any profits the drug companies make to conserve more land. Proponents call it a win-win situation, but some observers say proceed with caution.

HAMMOND: Right now it's -- it's sort of a global pandemic. These sort of deals are being proposed and are being executed really just about everywhere.

SCHREIBER: Ed Hammond is with the Rural Advancement Foundation International. He says in many countries, US companies are taking out patents on life forms, reaping large profits, and failing to fairly compensate communities where the organisms are found, or the indigenous people whose knowledge helped gain access to useful species. The biodiversity preserve near Ithaca is privately held and uninhabited, so it's unlikely there'll be any direct harm to the community. But Hammond says the new partnership should still raise questions.

HAMMOND: One of the principal, you know, ideas on which some of these deals are based is that the pharmaceutical company will patent the plant or the DNA segment from the plant or one of its parts, in order to commercialize a product derived from them. And we ultimately feel that, you know, the patenting of life is both something that's immoral and is technically unworkable.

SCHREIBER: Finally, Hammond asks: does linking conservation of biodiversity to potential economic value for industry undermine efforts to save habitat for its own sake? Carl Leopold, son of naturalist Aldo Leopold and one of the founders of the Finger Lakes Land Trust, doesn't see it that way.

LEOPOLD: The main beauty of this, it seems to me, is that there isn't any effort until now to really study the chemical ecology of this particular region, the northeastern United States. Most chemical ecology work has been done in the sub-tropics or in the tropics. So we feel very proud to be a pioneer in setting aside a beautiful piece of terrain that really is important to the United States.

SCHREIBER: Leopold says the land trust isn't counting on pharmaceutical royalties for future land conservation, but at least now some money might be returned to the land. And Leopold says the land trust will create strict guidelines to make sure natural resources aren't depleted or harmed as a result of prospecting. And for Cornell's Dr. Tom Eisner, that's the main point. That no species is worthless, and none is obsolete.

EISNER: What we find in species nowadays is a reflection of not so much what is there but of that which we know how to find. New techniques for looking at coming on line all the time. So maintaining this extraordinary library of information known as Mother Nature is the most important thing we can do for our descendants.

SCHREIBER: For Living on Earth, I'm Tatiana Schreiber in Ithaca, New York.



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