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Predicting the medicinal uses of plants

Scientists study how phylogenetic trees can predict the medicinal uses of plants.

Pterocarpus rohrii is used to treat malaria in the Neotropics and groups, phylogenetically, with other species of Pterocarpus having similar use (image: Gwilym Lewis)

The quest for new medicinal plants

Studying the traditional uses of medicinal plants has led to discoveries that have helped combat diseases and improve healthcare. However, the development of quantitative measures to assist in our quest for new medicinal plants has not greatly advanced in recent years.

Phylogenetic tools have increasingly been used to improve diagnostic studies in many areas of scientific research in the last two decades, but have often been overlooked in ethnomedicinal studies.

Comparing medicinal use in floras

PhD student Haris Saslis-Lagoudakis, co-supervised by Julie Hawkins (University of Reading) and Vincent Savolainen (Kew/Imperial College London), has compared medicinal uses within various floristic groups and looked at the phylogenetic patterns in a few case studies, including the legume Pterocarpus.

His studies show that species of Pterocarpus used to treat certain conditions, such as malaria, are significantly clumped phylogenetically, highlighting the predictive power of phylogenetic trees in studying the medicinal uses of plants.

Item from Prof. Vincent Savolainen (Professor of Organismic Biology, Imperial College London, & Research Fellow, RBG Kew)
Kew Scientist , issue 40

Article references

Saslis-Lagoudakis, C. H., Williamson, E. M., Savolainen V. & Hawkins, J. A. (2011). Cross-cultural comparison of three medicinal floras and implications for bioprospecting strategies. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 135(2): 476-487.

Saslis-Lagoudakis, C. H., Klitgaard, B. B., Forest, F., Francis, L, Savolainen,V., Williamson, E. M. & Hawkins, J. A. (2011). Use of phylogeny to interpret cross-cultural patterns in plant use and guide medicinal plant discovery, an example from Pterocarpus. PLOS ONE 6: e22275 [open access]

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