Herbal medicine through an evolutionary lens

A phylogenetic study has shown that related plants are used traditionally in three disparate regions to treat similar medical conditions.

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05 Mar 2013

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Pseudowintera colorata

Pseudowintera colorata, a plant species used medicinally in New Zealand. Pseudowintera species are used traditionally by Māori people to treat skin conditions, respiratory problems, and to help heal wounds. (Image: Steven Wagstaff)

There is often scepticism surrounding traditional herbal treatments, partly due to scarcity in large-scale evidence of efficacy of traditional medicine. A team of researchers from Kew, the University of Reading, Imperial College and RBG Edinburgh, in collaboration with colleagues from Nepal and New Zealand, have conducted a phylogenetic study that provides support for herbal remedies.

The researchers constructed a genus-level family tree representing 20,000 plant species found in three disparate regions (Nepal, New Zealand, and the Cape of South Africa), in order to compare medicinal plants used in these geographic areas. They found that plants traditionally used to treat similar health conditions came from the same plant clusters across the three floras. These shared phylogenetic patterns in traditional herbal medicine were interpreted as independent discovery of efficacy in these plant groups. This was supported by the finding that many plants used to produce drugs come from these clusters highlighted by traditional knowledge, suggesting that plant bioactivity underlies traditional medicine worldwide.

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

Kew Scientist, issue 42

Article reference

Haris Saslis-Lagoudakis,C., Savolainen, V., Williamson, E.M., Forest, F, Wagstaff, S.J., Baralf, S.R., Watsong, M.F. Pendry & C.A. Hawkins,J.A. (2012). Phylogenies reveal predictive power of traditional medicine in bioprospecting. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 109: 15835-1584.

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3 comments on 'Herbal medicine through an evolutionary lens'

Kew feedback team says

03/05/2013 8:31:20 AM | Report abuse

Hi Terri, yes, the picture illustrates one of the plants included in the study.

Janet Melbourne says

02/05/2013 9:36:30 PM | Report abuse

This is interesting, especially to Herbalists, but I would hope that the information found can be used in the protection of the Medicinal Plants of the Earth. These plants are not just a source of chemicals for Pharmaceutical production lines, but are in fact a sacred treasure of our World. They must be protected, once lost, gone forever.

terri says

02/05/2013 11:33:52 AM | Report abuse

Is the plant in the pic (horopito) an example of one of the plants?

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