Medicines from the Jungle

The jungles of Costa Rica are an international tourist destination for their exuberant beauty, their immense biodiversity which makes it a nature’s lover paradise, and they are even a great backdrop for the filming of movies like Jurassic Park. However, most people are not aware of the great interest of the international scientific community in the Costa Rican jungles.

Throughout history new cures have been discovered and developed thanks to observations of folk medicine which developed when certain people in the community specialized in mixing herbs and other natural ingredients to make a potion which was administered to the patient suffering different kinds of ailments. In a significant number of cases, it was found that it worked and scientists paid attention coming to realize that Nature has quite a collection of medicinal plants. In addition to natural remedies so popular once more these days, pharmacological medicines and vaccines have been developed from just such origins for worldwide distribution and use.

One such discovery that changed the world was the observation by Spanish Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century who learned from Indigenous tribes in Peru to treat fevers with the bark of a certain tree. From this, eventually scientists developed the pharmacological medicine Quinine, a most effective anti-malaria drug available today.

Incidentally, this discovery was instrumental in the successful construction of the Panama Canal. Workers were ravaged by malaria (also called yellow fever because the patient develops a condition called jaundice which gives the skin and the white of the eyes a yellowish color) and this often-fatal epidemic stalled the work until quinine was used to treat them. What a chain of events!

But back to the Costa Rican jungle.

With such rich abundance of exotic plants and animals some of which are only found in Costa Rica, these ancient jungles are a potential plethora of new scientific discoveries. In hope that such findings might be made here that could lead to the development and commercialization of new pharmaceutical products to help humanity, scientific research is continuously being conducted in a permanent research facility in the “selva” (Spanish for jungle) where scientists from other countries join Costa Rican scientists in the study of plants and jungle inhabitants they think might hold potential in this field.

A joint research team of scientists from the national University of Costa Rica, Harvard University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison have been working on a very exciting project which revolves around the study of Costa Rican endemic Apterostigma ants which could – literally – save the world!

This research is being done at the La Selva Biological Station which is part of the Organization for Tropical Studies. It’s located in the province of Heredia where 300 researchers from different countries come each year to conduct as many as 150 scientific projects.

On November 4 of this year, at a joint press conference at the UCR campus, Harvard researchers Jon Clardy and Ethan Van Harmam and Cameron Currie of Wisconsin-Madison joined via teleconference UCR researcher Adrian Pinto to make an astounding announcement to the world: They have discovered what they think likely could lead to the manufacture of the next generation of antibiotics which would overcome major limitations of the antibiotics currently in use around the world.

The health of the world is in crisis. Antibiotics, when first discovered, revolutionized healthcare and life quality and span by making it possible to control and cure deceases which used to kill people often at a young age and even in infancy. Penicillin and the many other antibiotics that prevent infections and kill bacteria have given a new lease on life to millions around the world. However, antibiotics became so common that the organisms they were to kill, started developing an immunity to them. Stronger antibiotics were developed but the levels of toxic side effects increased as well. For these reasons, responsible medical doctors are trying to limit the use antibiotics to cases when they are truly necessary to keep the patient from developing immunity to them and to limit their side effects. There are a couple of “last resort” antibiotics for extreme circumstances for which the germs have not yet developed resistance. However, the level of toxicity of these potent antibiotics is also higher and there is the fear of the germs eventually winning the battle against the antibiotics available. Because of these reasons, scientists are focusing research to develop a new version of antibiotics to which the bacteria won’t develop resistance and which do not pose the toxic side effect.

Enter the Apterostigma ants of Costa Rica. These ants make their own antibiotic: a natural substance that kills parasitic fungi. Researchers believe it could also help humans.

In their press conference, the researchers announced the discovery of a molecule produced by these ants that they believe could be used to manufacture a new improved antibiotic. They named their discovery “Selvamicin” in honor of its discovery in the “selva” (jungle)

Research on ants started at La Selva Biological Station in 2009 and focused primarily on the Apterostigma ants that cultivate and feed on a genus of fungus known as Leucoagaricus.

A parasitic micro fungus called Escovopsis also feeds on the fungi cultivated by these ants and invades their colonies in search of it. The Apterostigma ants protect their food from these predators by feeding them antibiotic-secreting bacteria that kills the invaders. In effect, the Apterostigma ants have developed a unique relationship with the bacteria by providing them with a place to live and in return the ants benefit from the substance the bacteria secrete, which is an efficient antifungal. Professor Currie who is an evolution expert discovered the interaction between the ants and the bacteria back in the 90s.

“These ants are farmers, as they grow their own food, but also pharmacists, as they manufacture their own antibiotics through their relationship with bacteria,” Pinto said.


As part of the research, the scientists have already tested Selvamicin on several types of fungi and found that it is effective in killing those fungi. They have already sent selected samples to Wisconsin for genetic analysis and to Harvard for chemical analysis. Experts there are currently working on the possible development of a new drug.

Selvamicin has been found by researchers to be similar in structure to that of other antifungals called Nystatin A and Amphotericin B. Both are listed by the World Health Organization as essential medicines but they might produce severe side effects to patients so scientists have been looking for alternatives.

Ethan Van Arnam of Harvard said the discovery “is a reminder of Costa Rica’s high ecological value, and how the country’s tropical forests still have many lessons to teach us about medicine and science.

Research is now focusing on understanding how ants have been using the same antibiotic against fungi for over 50 million years and it still works. This is important because there are bacteria s we started using less than 70 years ago that are already resistant to antibiotics.

All the scientists warned that research such as this takes time and patience and though they are hopeful this will become a viable commercial pharmaceutical to fight infections efficiently without the side effects of current antibiotics, there is a long way to go to get there. However, they also emphasized the work has been started and ongoing for some time.

The research group already has patented their findings. If their work leads to a commercially distributed antibiotic, recognition and a share of the profits will be shared by the three universities.

Carlos de la Rosa, Director of La Selva Biological Station, cautions that even a discovery such as this with such huge potential still has a long process ahead to arrive at a final product. He also pointed out that these discoveries could open the door to further research the properties of millions of existing bacteria and that could also lead to development of other new drugs.

If interested on more information, please refer to the Article of November 6, 2016 of the Tico Times on which this blog is largely based., science section

As you can see, Costa Rica whose name means Rich Coast, is not only rich in the beauty of its beaches, mountains, rivers, volcanos, spectacular sunsets, the good nature of its people and a large portion of the world’s biodiversity. Its “selva” is also rich in potential to benefit humanity. You too, can have a wonderful vacation in Costa Rica enjoying its terrific weather especially in winter if you live in a cold climate, explore the jungles, go zip lining, observe the wild life, hike the Costa Rica National Parks, and soak up the health and wellness that comes from feeling one with nature in Costa Rica.

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