Plant Chemistry and Us –

Plant Chemistry and Us

4 mins

Plants are medicine, and we’ve discovered about 15% of the species inhabiting Earth. What this means (among other things) is that the medicinal potential of all the undiscovered plant species, from the highest mountain ranges to the deepest, blackest reaches of the ocean, is almost unimaginable. Climate change may be about to sweep all those potential cures away.

Table of Contents

Hey! Plants are weirder, wilder, and more deserving of our awe than is generally understood. What the ____ am I talking about?

I’m talking about the strange synergy between plants and humans that, for thousands of years, has provided us physiological gifts we might not have expected from the Kingdom next door: the Plant Kingdom.

Synthesizing our Green Compatriots

While we are more recently synthesizing in the laboratory the photochemical tools found in plants, for most of human history, plants have been our found medicine; as evidenced in 4,000 year-old Sumerian records, for instance.

Today, botany is our new best friend. Dietary supplements, functional foods, and pharma — all derived from plants — are leaving their  phytochemical mark on the human culture.

Yes, yes. You can eat plants, of course. As planet Earth’s only producer in the food chain, plants are a big deal — and arguably the only reason there is animal life on this wet rock of a world. Producer is food chain shorthand for ”they don’t need to chase their food or go to the store for Cheetos.

They make their own food internally”. How handy would that be? Plants take the incoming energy of the sun and through photosynthesis turn sunlight into matter. We animals eat that plant matter, transferring the sun’s energy into our own grateful bodies.

Science Loves Nature

Science has done its thing with plants—figuring out the mechanisms by which plants keep themselves healthy and protected out there in the wild. Advances in biotechnology now provide the ability to deconstruct a molecule and back-engineer its most beneficial traits.

So it is that we have taken the centuries-old traditional botanical wisdom of indigenous peoples, and chemically synthesized the health-conferring qualities of the plant life those cultures discovered and vetted for us — through painstaking, pre-science trial and error.

The fact is, though, actual plant matter still inhabits some of our medicinal stockpile, as certain medicines still use use actual phytochemicals in their natural forms.

Before we had the ability to replicate the molecular chemistry of these longstanding green healers, newly discovered plants would be scrupulously investigated by the medical establishment for any available healing properties.

When the (arguable) alchemy of science figured out how to chemically mimic what the plants were doing, the effort to shift the footing commenced. Why mine for gold if you can produce it?

The pharmaceutical industry dove into the effort and even took learnings from the molecular structures they discovered in healing floral chemistry, investigating and using those structures as springboards for development of medicines not necessarily native to the plant kingdom. 

Plant Benefits Yet to Be Discovered

The natural biodiversity of our ecosystem is a matter of conversational awe and wonder. But do we truly understand the almost depthless variety of life forms the exist on our planet? Nope.

At this writing in 2022, scientists estimate that there are ~ 8.7 million species of plants and animals here on Earth. Since our species began earnestly classifying, naming, and organizing discovered plant and animal life about 200 years ago, we’ve identified around 1.2 million species.

Using these numbers, that leaves us with the somewhat staggering figure of 7.5 million undiscovered species. Another way to put it — we’ve discovered about 15% of the species inhabiting Earth.

What this means (among other things) is that the combinatorial medicinal potential of all the undiscovered plant species, from the highest mountain ranges to the deepest, blackest reaches of the ocean, is almost unimaginable.

Plants and the Mainstream

Apart from the development of medicines based on molecular science, there is a growing public awareness of the healing nature of plants you can just stick in your mouth and chew.

Vegetarianism and veganism aside, even the heartiest meat-eaters today are increasingly aware of a varied, plant-infused diet. Cancer, diabetes, liver and kidney issues—and of course obesity—are all, to one degree or another, mitigated by ingested plant phytochemicals; chemicals produced by plants.

The planet and its human inhabitants are in the throes of a battle. Earth is getting warmer, and the degree to which we can control the rising global temperature is a matter of increasingly polarizing debate.

PETM and Our Medicine Chest

About 56 million years ago, a huge burst of carbon dioxide is thought to have entered the atmosphere. Earth’s average temperature rose by 7 to 14 degrees Fahrenheit, an event known as The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM).

This PETM event is considered a usable analog for what is happening to the planet today. Cataclysms large and small are making themselves known.

Scientists have reported that when the Castle Fire engulfed California’s Sierra Nevada last year, the conflagration killed off more than 10 percent of the world’s mature giant sequoias.

The world’s climate is heating up at a rate 10 times faster than what transpired in the PETM. Unprecedented shifts in the plant kingdom are said to be imminent in the current model - and the change should be well underway in a matter of mere decades.

The cohort of plant life that may be about to suddenly morph? This is the plant kingdom whose evolutionary path runs right alongside our own, whose molecular makeup is, by that inscrutable miracle eons in the making, a complement to what we’re made of.

If the plant life on this planet is to undergo a change, let’s hope its chemical/molecular mechanics don’t move on without us—before we’ve even had the chance to introduce ourselves to the millions of undiscovered plant species and the gifts they’v always borne.

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