Eisner on Plants and ESA

Wed Mar 22 11:19:00 CST 1995

My thanks to Margaret Corbit of Cornell for forwarding the
attached to me. Sorry for cross-posting, I'm sending this to
BENE, CONSLINK, BIODICEN-L, and TAXACOM... Please share with
others as appropriate. Cheers,

     Steve Young
     young.steve at epamail.epa.gov

Remarks by Thomas Eisner, Schurman Professor of Biology, Cornell
University, on the occasion of a news briefing, Washington, DC,
Hard Rock Cafe, March 2, 1995.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

        My name is Thomas Eisner. I am professor of biology at
Cornell University, and director of Cornell's Institute for
Research in Chemical Ecology. I am also chairman of the
Endangered Species Coalition, an alliance of over 130
environmental, scientific, health, professional fishing, and
religious organizations that are all working towards the goal of
reauthorizing a strong Endangered Species Act. This Act will not
only protect plants and animals but will protect each and every
one of us.

        I am here today because I wish to address the question of
the chemical value of plants, or more specifically, the medicinal
value of plants.

        It is well known that many of our chief medicines are
derived from plants, and I shall not belabor the point. Suffice
it to say that fully one third of prescriptions given out
annually in the USA are based on chemicals from plants, or
synthesized in imitation or near imitation of plant substances.

        An initial point that needs to be emphasized is that most
plants have never been examined chemically. There are some
250,000 flowering plants worldwide, yet only some 5% of these
have been studied chemically. What this small fraction has
yielded in the line of useful substances is staggering. Figures
pertaining to one class of chemicals, the alkaloids, are
indicative. Thousands of alkaloids have been characterized from
plants, including hundred that have proven of use. These include
anticancer agents, pain killers, heart drugs, antiparasitic
factors, muscle relaxants, and respiratory stimulants -- to name
only a few. The conclusion to be derived from this is that
plants, as a group, are a veritable treasury, a storehouse of
medicinals remaining for the most part to be discovered.

        Our own endemic flora is not much better known chemically
than the flora worldwide. The species themselves are not even all
known. There are an estimated 24,000 plants, including some 3,000
lower plants, in the region comprised by the contiguous States,
Puerto Rico, and Hawaii. New plants are still being described
from these territories at the rate of about 1 every 7 days (725

new species were named in the period 1974-1989). Chemically,
fewer than 5% of our plants have been studied with any sort of

        A number of questions pertaining to plants are often
asked in connection with the Endangered Species Act, and I would
like to address these here. The questions all pertain to plant
chemistry, and specifically to the medicinal value of plants.

        Thus, one is often asked whether a species loses its
value once it has been studied chemically? Does it matter it if
then becomes extinct? Our chemical knowledge of organisms is
never exhaustive. Any species contains hundreds of compounds of
interest. In our chemical searches today, we find only what
current technology enables us to detect and what our store of
knowledge tells us to seek. Even plants that are well-known
chemically by today's standards are bound to contain chemicals
discoverable only by tomorrow's techniques. There is therefore no
such thing as chemical obsolescence of species any more than
there is genetic obsolescence. Indeed, preserving species for
their intrinsic genetic value is in itself of paramount
importance. The very genes which in an organism are responsible
for production of a desired chemical might some day be "put to
work" to produce that chemical in another organism (into which it
has been transferred) or in an industrial setting.

        Why, one is also asked, should a plant be preserved in
the wild? Could it not be maintained in an artificial setting?
Plants in captivity may not produce all the chemicals they
synthesize in the wild. They may produce some compounds only when
induced to do so by environmental factors, such as infection,
parasites, or grazers. There is therefore no alternative to
preserving plants in the wild.

        Why, one is further asked, should more than one
population of a plant be saved? The answer is that, at different
portions of their range, plants tend to differ genetically, and
consequently chemically. Compounds produced by a plant in New
York State may be absent from its relatives in Virginia or
Arkansas. Preserving more than one population of a species is
prudent to maximize the chance of discovering new chemicals.

        To those of us who have been studying the chemicals of
organisms and rallying support for the preservation of the
chemical and genetic treasury of nature, the Endangered Species
Act represents an essential component of our national land use
program. While the Act falls short in that it does not provide
nearly the level of protection for species and habitats that we
need, it has served us well. Its reauthorization should be a
matter of the highest national priority.

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