Discovering bioactive chemicals
BY ANGEL ALCALA
One of the unique benefits from biodiversity studies is the high probability of discovering bioactive chemicals that are of benefit to humankind in various ways.
Some of these chemicals find many uses in human nutrition as enzymes, co-enzymes, vitamins, food substitutes, etc.; in medicine as drugs, painkillers, antibacterial agents, etc., and in other useful chemical preparations that enhance human health and well-being, such as the facilitation of waste elimination.
These chemical products are elaborated in the course of metabolism and stored in certain organelles and/or tissues of microbes, plants and animals. For the manufacture of drugs sold in drugstores, the active principles are extracted through specific procedures.
We do not know exactly why and how these bio-active chemicals are manufactured by various species. Our key to understanding the reasons for their presence in these species is the fact that they underwent a very long process of evolution (hundreds to millions of years) to reach their present state of existence.
During this long period of evolution, one can imagine the adjustments and adaptations to their environment that they had to make in their evolutionary journey. Moreover, what they are now is the result of biotic interactions (mostly competition) with other species co-existing with them, part of a process called co-evolution. This competition is especially severe in the tropics because of the high number of species (species richness) involved, of which the Philippines is a good example.
With regard to ecosystems of high importance to humankind, the tropical rainforests, mangroves and coral reefs rank high among ecosystems with high potentials as sources of active chemicals of direct importance to humans. Yet, they are the most threatened among the world’s ecosystems today.
Earlier in our history, these ecosystems served as sources of the many needs of man. For the Philippines, they were generally intact in the 1930s but gradually deteriorated to what they are today. For us who are fortunate to have lived in the earlier decades, the extent to which our people depended on the resources of these three then relatively pristine ecosystems has been imprinted in our minds. Thus, we can understand why earlier generations lived simpler, happier lives.
One thing academic institutions can do is to demonstrate the importance of these ecosystems through biodiversity research that will show what bioactive chemicals they contain. Many of these chemicals would appear useful for various human purposes, providing another dimension to the usefulness of Philippine biodiversity. What comes to mind are antibiotics from fungi and more recently, powerful painkillers from marine snails of the genus Conus.
There has been a proliferation of plant preparations being sold as food supplements. It is not known whether these are truly effective as they claim to be. And there are thousands of species of plants and animals that are waiting to be screened chemically for bioactive chemical compounds.
Philippine universities are expected to respond to these challenges, and many have begun to explore the field. Several papers have been published by scientists in Manila-based universities.*