Did you know that a crucial ingredient in the test to diagnose COVID-19 was discovered in a freshwater hot spring?
Actually, it’s even more significant than that. This compound (a type of enzyme named DNA polymerase) has also been used to test other emerging diseases like AIDS and SARS, and is the key ingredient in a technique which underlies modern genetics: the polymerase chain reaction (PCR).
The PCR was developed in the mid-1980s using a DNA polymerase developed from bacteria Thermus aquaticus (named Taq DNA polymerase from T. aquaticus) found in a hot spring in Yellowstone National Park. Since then, biotechnology companies have produced a similar enzyme for PCR from bacteria living in deep-sea hydrothermal vents (Pfu DNA polymerase). These DNA polymerase enzymes have enabled medical scientists to take a small sample of virus DNA (for example, in a patient’s blood sample) and multiply it until it is big enough to detect and confirm a diagnosis. The PCR process requires a series of drastic temperature changes, and what made the discovery of Taq DNA polymerase so important was its ability to function despite the fluctuations to extreme temperatures – due to the extreme environments in which these bacteria had evolved.
A bacteria discovered in a hot spring within Yellowstone National Park in the United States was the key to a technique underpinning modern genetic science. Image: vladislav@munich/Flickr
Nature’s trial and error
The process of evolution – trial and error over millions of generations – means that all lifeforms which we share our planet with today have scraped their survival through long trials of adapting and readapting to their environments. The innovation that we find in the natural world is the basis of our study of chemistry and biology- without it, we lose a few billion years’ head-start.
Even though most of the innovations which inform medicine are chemicals like Taq DNA polymerase, it’s not just microscopic life like the bacteria Thermus aquaticus which has led to medicinal breakthroughs. Sometimes vertebrates can create extraordinary chemical innovations by becoming locked in an arms race… which is as exciting as it sounds.
An evolutionary arms race
A male Red-bellied newt (Taricha rivularis) in northern California. Newts in the Taricha genus (Pacific newts) possess the biotoxin tetrodotoxin and can be lethal to humans if consumed. Image: Seánín Óg
Pacific newts (from the genus Taricha which comprises four species of rough-skinned newt) can be found from southern Alaska to southern California. With their soft skin, slow gait and small size, these newts are perfect snacks for aquatic garter snakes. Like many amphibians, the Pacific newts have developed a toxin called tetrodotoxin, or TTX, in their skin and brightly coloured bellies which they expose when threatened to warn off predators. Most predators, like birds, are wary of bright colours and will not attempt to capture colourful prey… but in the case of Pacific newts, garter snakes evolved their own antidotes against tetrodotoxin, resulting in a coevolutionary arms race where the newts with the most toxicity in their skin survived to reproduce, but so did the garter snakes with the highest tetrodotoxin resistance. The result is that Taricha newts are extremely toxic – far more toxic than they ‘need’ to be, if it hadn’t been for their evolutionary enemy, the garter snake.
Numerous arms races like these have resulted in the evolution of an innovative range of toxins and chemicals evolving across the animal kingdom. As well as Pacific newts, tetradotoxins can be found in many other poisonous species such as pufferfish, blue-ringed octopuses, moon snails and many other amphibians.
But how does the evolution of potent toxins benefit medical science? Well, tetradotoxin is a blocker, and can prevent the nervous system from carrying messages such as pain from our body to our brain, as well as responses (like flinching) to such messages. This has been investigated as a method of pain relief for cancer, migraines and headaches associated with heroin withdrawal. For pop culture fans, tetrodotoxin is also a very popular plot device used in action storylines to fake death, such as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Jane the Virgin, and Miami Vice. Although Shakespeare doesn’t mention it, it could have been used to fake Juliet’s death in Romeo and Juliet, too.
Tetradotoxins embody the quality of the natural world to be both good or bad for humans, depending on our relationship with it. On one side, they are deadly nerve poisons which collect in the skin of brightly coloured amphibians. On the other, with more understanding they could provide breakthroughs for modern medicine. Another toxin found in amphibian skin is epibatidine, which could lead to the development of a painkiller 200 times more potent than morphine and without the addictiveness.
Biodiversity and medicine
The natural world has been humanity’s medicine cabinet for millennia. Artemisinin, a drug that is nearly 100 percent effective against malaria, is extracted from sweet wormwood, a Chinese herb which has been used to treat fevers in Chinese traditional medicine for more than 2,000 years.
It’s not just humans who self-medicate using their environments. Many animals use their environments as a pharmacy as well, including birds, bees, lizards, elephants and chimpanzees. A dog will eat grass when it has an upset stomach. Macaws eat clay to aid digestion. Female woolly spider monkeys control their fertility with plant consumption. Pregnant elephants eat Boraginaceae leaves to induce labour. Self-medication is particularly common in primates – bonobos have been observed folding up leaves and stems of the shrub Manniophyton fulvum and swallowing them whole during parasite season. The folding is thought to slow down the decomposition of the leaves so they can act on parasites further down in the intestines.
Considering the ancient roots of traditional medicine, and self-medicating behaviour in our closest wild relatives, it is safe to assume that humans have a long history using the natural world to treat our ailments. According to the World Health Organisation, traditional medicine continues to play a vital role in healthcare, particularly in Africa and Southeast Asia.
From the approximate 60,000 plant species being used for medicine, about 15,000 are threatened with extinction from overharvesting and habitat destruction. Image © Shutterstock
Modern medicine is not separate from the natural world, either. Having advanced rapidly in the past 200 years, arguably one of the first major breakthroughs was when an active ingredient of a medicinal plant was extracted for the first time in the early 1800s: morphine. Despite its side effects (including decreased respiratory effort, low blood pressure and addiction – which is why alternatives like synthetic epibatidine are being developed), this