What is Bioprospecting? Why is it Important?

Prior to the early 1940’s, death from infection was common.

Catch a bug like Pneumonia or Strep throat and you may very well have died from it.

Enter Alexander Fleming, the scientist who discovered the first antibiotic, penicillin. He didn’t create this compound however, he merely isolated it from a common mould, the type that you may find on old orange peels or bread.

Thanks to this medical advancement, death from infectious disease is no longer an issue for most people. This development came to us through a process known as bioprospecting.

There are many other examples of medicines that were sourced through the concept of bioprospecting, including chemotherapy drugs, pain medications, antidepressants, and even psychedelic drugs like LSD. Bioprospecting remains today an essential element of new drug discovery.


The Search For New Drugs

The human body is incredibly complex. This means that there are an unfathomable number of things that can go wrong with the human body. We’re constantly trying to search for new solutions to old problems, like our age-old war with cancer, as well as improvements to old medicines that have limited efficacy (like antidepressants, and seizure medications).

Additionally, drugs that were effective in the past, may no longer be effective today. A great example of this is antibiotics. These medications are essential for public health, but are losing their effectiveness as bacteria becomes resistant to their effects. This places a heavy burden on researchers to develop new drugs to replace them before it's too late and global outbreak occurs.

Finding new drug candidates is no easy task. The majority of drug research falls flat on its back despite years of hard work and rigorous testing.

Additionally, searching for new chemicals from scratch is like trying to find a needle in a haystack... while blindfolded with your hands tied behind your back. There are simply too many chemical combinations possible to brute force effective medicines.

This is why many scientists look for prospective new drugs from plants and fungi.

With a long history of use, and incredible chemical diversity, plants offer us a boost in drug discovery. Based on traditional uses, scientists can take a closer look at the active constituents of plants used for a certain condition. Based on these findings, these chemicals can then be isolated or synthesised to create new drugs.


Drug Development Is Driven By Patent Law

The pharmaceutical industry is notoriously cut-throat. The high cost of drug discovery and new drug development makes it important that the final profits produced from the drug remains in the hands of those who worked hard to create it. This is controlled by patent laws.

Patent laws are important. Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of these drug companies for just a moment. Imagine you spend 10 years and 100 million dollars developing a treatment for multiple sclerosis. The drug is completed and released… you can finally begin off-setting the insane development costs you spent making it.

Once the drug is released, however, other companies realise the usefulness of this medication, and begin manufacturing and selling it at a cheaper price. The reason they can sell it cheaper than you is because they didn’t dump 100 million dollars into its development like you did.

People begin to buy your competitors version of the drug over yours because it’s cheaper. All your hard work and investment of both time and money was for nothing.

This example is exactly what would happen without patent laws, and would be enough to completely halt future drug development. It wouldn’t be a sustainable business practice to spend all your money paving the way for all your competitors to profit from.

Patent laws ensure that the companies spending the time and money developing new, innovative drugs are entitled to the profits for the first 10 years following discovery. Due to the high cost required to produce these drugs, it’s necessary for these companies to justify spending this money to do it.

Tangent warning:

Many people will argue that developing new drugs to cure disease should be done regardless of cost and that locking in profits through patent laws is unethical. It’s important to remember that drug companies need to turn a profit in order to avoid bankruptcy. Profits are used for paying back the cost of drug discovery, as well as funding the development of new drugs. I’m not arguing that medicines shouldn’t be free for any inhabitant of earth, because I believe they should. However, the only way to achieve this is to transition from market driven drug development (pharmaceutical companies in the private sector) to government-funded development (aka higher taxes and less efficiency). We can weigh out the options of both but I don’t see how either one is much better than the other.


Searching For New Chemicals From Natural Sources

Plants, fungi, and animals are master chemists. In fact, life itself could be isolated down to a chemical reaction.

Whenever we add chemicals into our body, either from plants, animals, or man-made compounds, it’s going to have an effect in some way on our bodies natural chemical processes. The trick is to figure out which ones cause positive changes, and what the best way to use it is.

Plants offer a headstart in this search through traditional medical practices. We can identify a long list of herbal medicines for nearly any condition, in nearly any part of the world. From here we can begin the long and tedious process of sifting through it using the scientific method and high-tech chemical analysis to push this understanding even further.


Pharmacognosy & Plant Medicine Definitions

Medical ethnobotany:

The study of the traditional use of plants for medicinal purposes; Ethnopharmacology: The study of the pharmacological qualities of traditional medicinal substances


A branch of knowledge dealing with the use of medicinal ingredients from plants and animals.


The medicinal use of plant extracts); and phytochemistry, the study of chemicals derived from plants (including the identification of new drug candidates derived from plant sources)


The process by which animals self-medicate, by selecting and using plants, soils, and insects to treat and prevent disease.

Marine pharmacognosy:

The study of chemicals derived from marine organisms.


The constant checking and reassurance that drugs are safe and effective even after development has been completed.


The search for medicinal or industrially relevant constituents from organic material.


The exploitation of genetic, or biochemically active constituents from plants, animals or fungi without adequate compensation to the community from which is originated.


Drugs Derived From Plants

Check out our recent article on 9 of the most famous drugs developed from plant based sources including Aspirin, Penicillin, Heroin and LSD.

Examples of Drugs Derived From Plants

Drug Name Plant/Fungi Source Main Uses
Acetyldigoxin Digitalis lanata Cardiotonic
Acetylsalicylic Acid (ASA) Salix alba Pain and inflammation
Apomorphine Papaver somniferum Pain Management
Bromelain Ananas comosus Proteolytic
Caffeine Camellia sinensis, Coffea arabica, Paullinia cupana, Ilex paraguariensis CNS Stimulant
Camphor Cinnamomum camphora Rubefacient
Capsaicin Capsicum annuum Pain Reliever
Cannabidiol (CBD) Cannabis spp. Cancer, Anxiety, Pain Management
Curcumin Curcuma longa Anti Inflammatory
Digoxin Digitalis lanata Cardiac arrythmia and heart failure
Dronabinol Cannabis sativa Anorexia and nausea
Galantamine Galanthus nivalis1 Alzheimer's Disease
Lapachol Tabebuia impetiginosa Cancer
L-Dopa Mucuna pruriens Anti-Parkinson’s Disease
Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) Claviceps purpurea Recreation
Menthol Mentha piperita Flavouring agent
Morphine Papaveraceae somniferum Pain
Myriocin Mycelia sterilia Multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune disease
Nitisinone Callistemon citrinus Tyrosinemia
Paclitaxel Taxus brevifolia Cancer
Quinidine Cinchona ledgeriana Arrhythmias
Quinine Cinchona ledgeriana Malaria
Psilocin Psilocybe cubensis Depression
Steviosides Stevia rebaudiana Diabetes
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) Cannabis sativa Nausea, recreation
Tiotropium Atropa belladonna COPD
Vinblastine Catharanthus roseus Cancer
Vincristine Catharanthus roseus Cancer
Vinpocetine >Vinca major Cognitive enhancement, stroke
Yohimbine Pausinystalia yohimbe Cardiovascular disease

The Process Of Bioprospecting & Drug Development

The process of drug development can take a very long time and is exceptionally expensive.

A recent paper investigating the development costs of cancer medications reported that the average spending was $648 million dollars, and 7.3 years.

The process is also not as direct as you might think. Although the development of the drug itself is usually performed by a pharmaceutical company with access to the tools and materials needed to create and test the drug, along with the marketing and legal channels to sell it.

The process actually starts elsewhere through the collaborative efforts of passionate independent researchers.


The Drug Development Process Through Bioprospecting

1. What problem are we trying to solve?

This is the whole point of the drug discovery itself. Although some discoveries are accidental, the first stage is to identify the problem that needs to be solved.

2. Ethnobotanical Review Of Plants/fungi Used For This Problem Traditionally.

The next step is to identify the plants or fungi that will be further investigated to identify efficacy for the highlighted problem.

If using only traditional knowledge to identify plant species, further evidence-based testing to confirm these uses is needed before being accepted to the next stage.

Many plants and fungi already have a wide scientific evidence base. A systematic review of this research is the most beneficial for identifying the best candidate(s) before moving to the next stage.

3. Isolation and identification of constituents.

In this stage of development, the raw plant or fungus material is extracted and isolated into its individual components. This may involve the isolation of a particular chemical, or separation into bulk parts (alkaloid components, flavonoid components, etc).

4. Testing The Compounds

Each of the components isolated in the previous steps are then tested via high throughput screening, as well as further in vitro, and eventually in vivo animal testing.

This is often where drug companies take over.

5. Synthesis of the compound

Researchers developing the drug ask the question, can it be synthesised?

There are specific laws surrounding the types of chemicals that can be patented, which generally involves some degree of modification to a naturally occurring substance. In some cases, small changes are done to the chemical to make it more effective. Aspirin for example has an additional acetyl group on the molecule that makes absorption more effective.

6. Pharmacokinetic studies

Once the drug has been developed, it goes through a series of in vitro and animal testing to identify the pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics (how it works and how it’s absorbed/excreted). Safety, and efficacy are measured to prepare for clinical trials.

7. Clinical Trials

Clinical trials can take several years to complete, and require the approval of ethics boards and committees to conduct. These trials are the final step taken to prove the efficacy of the drug in human patients.

After several rounds of successful clinical trials, each growing in patient number, the drug can finally be published and sold to the general public.

8. Publication

After every stage in the drug development process, a paper is published highlighting the findings. It allows the scientists behind the development to gain acknowledgement for their hard work, and to provide information to other researchers doing similar research.


A Future Prospect

As our understanding of biochemistry, phytochemistry, and medical science improves. We’re identifying new potential candidates for new drugs at an ever increasing rate.

Dr Trudi Collet from Queensland University of Technology has apparently identified a native Australian medicinal plant species with compounds capable of effectively killing Zika virus. The plant species in question has not yet been named (see discussion on patents to understand why).

Developments with this research could lead to the development of drugs that can treat other members of the Zika virus family (Flaviviridae) such as dengue virus, West Nile Virus, and Hepatitis C virus.


Author Bio:

Justin Cooke is a medical herbalist, and the founder of The Sunlight Experiment. He has a passion for scientific research and discovery is what motivates him to produce content like this everyday.

He earned a Bachelor of health sciences (BHSc) degree in 2018, and currently writes for a number of prominent health and medical blogs.

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  1. Veeresham, C. (2012). Natural products derived from plants as a source of drugs.

  2. Braun, L., & Cohen, M. (2015). Herbs and Natural Supplements, Volume 2: An Evidence-Based Guide (Vol. 2). Elsevier Health Sciences.