Voyager: How do scientists find medicines in the wilderness?


Scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego are searching the oceans for marine organisms that make compounds active against human diseases.

The ways in which scientists find organisms depends on the type of organism they are collecting. Some scientists collect plants from tropical rainforests or other terrestrial habitats. Others collect marine organisms, such as corals or sponges, from oceans throughout the world. Still others concentrate on microorganisms, such as fungi, bacteria, or cyanobacteria, which come from many different locations including oceans, forests, deserts, and other environments.

There are three general collection methods that scientists use: random, ethnobotanical, and ecologically directed. When using the random collection method, they gather organisms randomly as they encounter them in the wild. Ethnobotanical collections involve working with native or indigenous people who have passed on their knowledge of traditional medicine for generations.  Lastly, collections can be made using information gained through ecological observations, such as focusing efforts on young leaves that generally produce more chemicals to protect them as they grow.

After researchers make collections, they bring the materials back to their laboratories where they use chemicals to extract compounds from the plant, coral, sponge, or microorganisms. Once the chemicals are extracted, they are tested to determine if they have an effect, or “activity”, against diseases such as such as cancer, heart disease, or malaria. Extracts that have activity are then separated to find specific compounds that might one day become medicines.

To read more about Scripps’ biomedicine research in Panama, read our story “Discovering Diversity in the Tropics” at

--Marcy J. Balunas, Postdoctoral researcher, Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine

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