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What is Bioprospecting? - Definition & Examples

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov
This lesson defines the concept of bioprospecting. We'll also explore numerous examples of how it has helped us in the development of very important drugs and other products derived from nature.

Bioprospecting

Can you figure out what the opium poppy, the white willow tree, spoiled sweet clover, Madagascar periwinkle, and the fungus Penicillium have in common?

Each of these species offers biochemicals that have been tapped to develop important compounds used in the fields of medicine. They are examples of the concept of bioprospecting. In short, bioprospecting is the search for, and commercialization of, new products derived from nature. Let's go over this concept in more detail and explore some examples of how it works.

Practices and Challenges

You've probably heard that one of the reasons environmentalists plead for the preservation of nature is that countless plants, fungi and animals might produce biochemicals that could potentially be a great boon to humans. Well, those environmentalists have a point. Countless substances, especially lifesaving drugs, have been developed in great part thanks to nature.

Bioprospecting is about looking for these special plants and animals. Plants, fungi, animals, bacteria and plenty of other organisms may contain chemical compounds that could be of benefit for us. The search is also on for important genes that can be used to our benefit. More recently, bioprospecting has also included research conducted into indigenous knowledge about the use of biological resources.

While that is the upside of bioprospecting, everything has its shadow. And bioprospecting's shadow involves a few things. Firstly, it is largely a commercial process. In other words, it's about the search for economically valuable products. Compounds could be found that are of great benefit to a few people, but they may be ignored if they cannot be commercially successful.

Another potential problem with bioprospecting revolves around conservation. How can we ensure that the search for and utilization of biological resources for our benefit does not result in great harm to nature?

Finally, bioprospecting must take into account the rights of indigenous communities, their knowledge and traditions in terms of the research and commercialization of their heritage.

Examples

There are numerous examples of successful bioprospecting. Let's go back to our introduction. Remember these?

  • Opium poppy
  • White willow tree
  • Spoiled sweet clover
  • Madagascar periwinkle

Opium poppy pod
op

The names of these plants may not be all that familiar, but check out the drugs derived from them:

  • Opium poppy: morphine, a powerful pain reliever.
  • White willow tree: aspirin, a pain reliever and life-saver.
  • Spoiled sweet clover: warfarin, an anticoagulant (blood-thinner) that has saved countless lives.
  • Madagascar periwinkle: vinblastine, an anti-cancer drug.

Our introduction also included Penicillium, which is a fungus. Penicillium is the reason you can get infected with bacteria from a simple scratch and live to tell the tale. This fungus gave us a very important bacteria-fighting drug: Penicillin, the first antibiotic. Another type of Penicillium gave us important cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins.

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