For generations, the dry forests of San Luis Potosí state in northern Mexico have provided residents with medicinal plants, including “cabezona,” (Grindelia palmeri) used to treat inflammations, and “flor de acocotillo” (Prionosciadium watsoni), sure to soothe a stomachache. Working with local communities, scientists with the Botanical Garden at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the University of Arizona, and the International Cooperative Biodiversity Group are testing the flora of San Luis Potosí to see if they might be the basis of promising new drugs or natural herbicides.
Robert Bye, director of the botanical garden, emphasizes that the research is not just an academic exercise. Local residents are involved in the project, and a signed legal contract guarantees that they would share in profits should any of the plants in their backyards yield a commercial product.
“The University is not going to share information about the potential commercial use [of the plants] without first consulting with the communities,” Bye explains. The researchers are abiding by a confidentiality clause that forbids publication of any information about a plant’s possible economic value. For one thing, Bye notes, “You can’t work with companies when the scientific information knowledge already has been revealed in a publication. They aren’t interested then and prefer to publish themselves.” He also believes it’s important that the scientists not publish scientific articles that might give others a chance to establish a patent based on the information, unless the communities also receive benefits.
Testing of the plants collected in San Luis Potosí is done at the University of Arizona under strict confidentiality; University researchers do not know the names of the plant extracts they are examining for active compounds.
The San Luis Potosí project is part of a larger initiative called the Bioactive Agents of Arid Zone Plants of Latin America, which is active in Argentina and Chile, involving universities, research institutions, and local communities as well as the International Cooperative Biodiversity Group (IGCB). The ICGB is a consortium comprised of the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. ICBG-funded research projects are underway in 10 tropical countries worldwide; all seek to research new drugs from natural sources, conserve biodiversity, promote sustainable development, and develop local capacity for natural-resources management.
Bye says that the project will not appropriate information, since researchers are not working with traditional healers, but rather are leaning on popular and widespread knowledge. “The project aims to implement the Convention on Biological Diversity,” he says. “We are focusing on conservation and how we can use it and share its benefits.”
The Convention on Biological Diversity was drafted at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and has since been signed by 168 nations. Signatories pledge to conserve biodiversity and equitably share benefits from commercial uses of genetic resources. The convention, which also recognizes the right of countries to regulate access to biodiversity, has been not been ratified by the United States; Mexico ratified it in 1993.
In San Luis Potosí, researchers have been testing plants – an activity commonly known as “bioprospecting” — for three years and have yet to uncover a potential wonder drug. But most scientists believe that bioprospecting requires at least a decade or two, plus a good deal of luck, before a plant with commercial promise is found.
Researchers today have fewer plants to test in San Luis Potosí than just a few decades ago. Scores of plant species have vanished from the region, victims of overharvesting and habitat damage caused by extraction of other products of value to people, particularly firewood, lime, and wood for carbon. As part of their work, Bye and his colleagues are reintroducing some of the plants that have disappeared, such as “Flor de Chocolate” (Cosmos atrosanguineus), known as chocolate cosmos in English and endemic to the region. Botanists are able to propagate the plant, which has velvety, deep maroon-colored flowers and a sweet, chocolately fragrance, using in vitro extracts.
In addition to the bioprospecting project, Mexico’s Autonomous University is working with 200 villagers who have concessions within the Sierra de Alvarez protected area, where researchers are helping them improve propagation of the medicinal plants they commonly collect. About 60 students and 35 women in the village of San Francisco are receiving training in how to sustainably harvest medicinal plants and convert them into products — such as teas and soaps – that they can sell locally at higher prices than the dried plants alone can fetch.
According to project technician Myrna Mendoza, medicinal plants commonly sold at local markets include “raíz de indio” (Iostephane hterophylla), “cabezona” (Grindelia palmeri), “betónica” (Agastache palmeri), “flor de acocotillo” (Prionosciadium watsoni) and a species of laurel (Litsea glaucescens HBK). She notes that the first four plants are used to treat, respectively, injuries, inflammations, nerves, and stomach aches. Laurel is a highly coveted aromatic herb.
The Mexican Fund for Nature Conservation is supporting this project, whose goal, Mendoza says, is to ensure the sustainable use of medicinal plants so an ancient tradition can continue in San Luis Potosí.
— Katiana Murillo
Contacts at the Jardín Botánico, Universidad Autónoma de México:
To see a list of other projects funded by the Mexican Fund for Nature Conservation, visit the Eco-Index: