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Future Medicines May Be Threatened by Plant Extinction, Report Warns

“We’re potentially staring down the barrel of losing up to half of all of our future medicines,” one scientist warned.

Fire burns in a deforested section along the Interoceanic Highway in the Amazon lowlands on November 16, 2013, in Madre de Dios region, Peru.

Forty-five percent of the world’s known flowering plants and 68 percent of cycads, or cone-bearing plants, are at risk of extinction, a new report warns.

“We’re looking at over 100,000 species that are threatened — that’s more than the total number of species of mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, all of our vertebrates put together,” said Matilda Brown, a conservation analyst and one of the researchers of the report.

The report, “State of the World’s Plants and Fungi,” published by the Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG), warns that extinction threatens future foods, medicines, timber, and other resources. Because 77 percent of unidentified species are anticipated to be at risk of extinction, researchers at RBG Kew presume that all recently identified plant species are endangered unless evidence suggests otherwise.

“At a time when plants and fungi are increasingly under threat, we need to act fast to fill knowledge gaps and identify priorities for conservation,” said professor Alexandre Antonelli, director of science at RBG Kew.

The scientists warn that this potential biodiversity loss may endanger future drug discovery. Medicinal plants are a significant source of bioactive compounds, including antibiotics, immunosuppressants and statins that are used in medicine.

“[W]hen we consider that 9 out of 10 of our medicines come from plants, what we’re potentially staring down the barrel of is losing up to half of all of our future medicines,” Brown said.

Scientists are continually discovering new plant species that may have bioactive compounds that could be used in future medicine. Twenty-five hundred new plant species are formally named by scientists each year. In fact, there is currently a backlog of approximately 100,000 newly discovered plant species awaiting formal classification by botanists. This report estimates that three out of four unidentified plant species are likely threatened by extinction.

“Naming and describing a species is the vital first step in documenting life on Earth,” said Dr. Tuula Niskanen of the University of Helsinki, former research leader in accelerated taxonomy at RBG Kew. “Without knowing what species there are and having names for them, we won’t be able to share information on the key aspects of species’ diversity, make any assessments of species’ conservation status to know whether they are at risk from extinction, or explore their potential to benefit people and society.”

The report also emphasizes that there may be millions of species of fungi in the world that have yet to be discovered, making the fungal kingdom the “next frontier of biodiversity science.”

“They have amazing compounds, chemicals that can be used for industry, for drug discovery. But we know very little because we only know less than 10 percent of them. So what happens with the other 90 percent? There may be amazing resources there that we haven’t discovered yet,” said mycologist Ester Gaya.

“It is essential to know what species of fungi we have here on Earth and what we need to do for them, so that we don’t lose them,” Dr. Niskanen said.

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