ITHACA, N.Y. – Returning to campus from expeditions in the forests of South and Central America, a team of Cornell University undergraduate science students is applying modern analytical techniques to learn the chemistry behind the nature-based medicinals that work for native peoples – and which someday may find a place on our druggists’ shelves, too.
“We haven’t identified these plants with their scientific names yet, so we’re labeling them with the Piaroa Indian names – like tuu dau, their plant to treat inflammation from ant bites, or cuo mariche, for bloody diarrhea,” explained Patricia Luckeroth. “One of their plants is prescribed both for lice and dandruff.”
The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences junior majoring in botany from San Juan, Puerto Rico, was one of 14 students spending last summer in the Amazon rain forest of Venezuela. Others trekked to the drier but equally intriguing forests of the Mexican Yucatan, where the ancient herbal tradition of the Mayans offers hope for 21st century ills.
Hundreds of miles from any major city, at a former ecotourism resort called Yutaje on a tributary of the Orinoco River, where Cornell’s Eloy Rodriguez, the James Perkins Professor of Environmental Studies, hopes to establish a scientific field station, analytical chemistry doesn’t come easy. In rain forest-style chemistry, TLC stands for thin-layer chromatography, a low-tech but portable method that gives a rough idea of the compounds student-ethnobotanists are finding in extracts of the plants.
For now, at least, more precise analysis of their promising findings must await the return to the laboratories at Cornell, where state-of-the-art (and energy -hungry) equipment does not rely on electricity from a sputtering gasoline-fueled generator.
The list of plant medicinal uses that the students chronicled from the Piaroas gives some idea of that people’s medical priorities – and also of the perils faced by the student field workers: Skin fungi, diarrhea, snake bites and muscle injuries all have effective, plant-based treatments in the Piaroa tradition. So do ant bites (by the inch-long and aptly named 24-hour ant whose venom inflicts agony for at least a day), asthma, bone fractures and leismanaisis (the disfiguring skin disease that starts with the bite of a mosquito that previously bit an infected mouse).
“My dad said, ‘Just be cautious,'” Leslie Esterrich said, recalling her announcement of plans to spend the summer conducting research in the Amazons of Venezuela. Until then, the most adventurous summer vacation for the Vienna, Va., junior in the College of Arts and Sciences had been a pre-med program at the University of Virginia Medical School.
“We learned not to touch things we weren’t familiar with and to look before you jump,” Luckeroth said of the orientation the students received in Caracas before setting out for Yutaje, where the life lessons continued. Snakes of the Amazon are one thing, she knew already, but even the prettiest caterpillar can bear a painful skin irritant. Her research will now focus on shigas, a weedy legume that grows along river banks where the Piaroa harvest its seeds for bread. Shigas, she said, appears to have antibiotic properties, and if so, that will be news to science: Until now the legume has been little-known in the scientific literature except for its nitrogen-fixing capabilities.
Support for the student study in Venezuela and Mexico was provided by the Minority International Research Training Program of the National Institutes of Health. The students already have reported preliminary findings at a national scientific meeting, sponsored by the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in the Sciences (SACNAS). Travel funding to the Los Angeles meeting was provided by Cornell’s Latin American Studies Program, Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, SACNAS and the Howard Hughes Foundation through the Cornell College of Arts and Sciences.
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