Importance of Plant Conservation for Future Drug Discoveries

Text & Photos by Dr. Pankaj Chetia

Human civilization is still dependent on plant resources for combating different ailments..

Houttuynia cordata

“All plants are medicinal”. Well, these are not my words! This was the version of great ancient Indian saint cum physician Sushruta who once listed around 700 medicinal plants and their usage in curing around 1120 ailments. The statement which was put forwarded centuries ago is still relevant. Human civilization is still dependent on plant resources for combating different ailments. Different plants are reservoirs of different phytochemicals. These phytochemicals may be highly medicinal or sometimes even toxic or allergenic. Structures of some of these phytochemicals may be really new to us and these may have tremendous medicinal importance. These phytochemicals may lead to the discovery of novel and effective drugs against different diseases.

As we all know, north east India is highly rich in biodiversity, ethnic diversity and so is rich in medicinal Plants. Different ethnic communities have their indigenous medicinal knowledge which is mainly plant based. Although modern healthcare system is gradually replacing the indigenous systems, medicinal plant based healthcare systems are still prevalent in most of the remote areas and the entire region as a whole. Natural product researchers are engaged in identification and isolation of bioactive principles from these traditionally used medicinal plants. If we see the origin of several lifesaving drugs like Artemisinin, Taxol, Quinine etc., the most important fact is that all these are of plant origin. Although many of these plant derived compounds can be synthesized in the laboratory, a section of these can’t be synthesized and can only be extracted from the plant itself.

Rauvolfia serpentina

Taxol is one such anticancer drug, which can’t be synthesized in the laboratory so far and is extracted only from the bark of Taxus baccata L., Taxus wallichiana Zucc. and other Taxus spp. Because of this, these Taxus plants are being overexploited and being smuggled which has become a major threat. This is just an example. Assam, and the entire north east India as a whole, is rich in medicinal plants. Many of these plants are overexploited for different purposes in an unsustainable manner. Because of overexploitation and also because of our negligence, many of these important medicinal plants are g