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A realistic way to save rainforests

Misty-eyed idealism alone will not save Earth's dwindling tropical rainforests. But a five-year, $3 million study in Panama indicates rainforests can be protected if the pharmaceutical industry establishes Third World laboratories and hires local researchers to look for new medicines extracted from plants that evolved defenses against insects.

"Until now, efforts to find drugs in the rainforest haven't really led to rainforest conservation," says Tom Kursar, an associate professor of biology at the University of Utah, who led the study with his wife, biology Professor Phyllis Coley. "But we have developed a novel approach that provides a direct link between looking for drugs and promoting conservation and economic development in biodiversity-rich countries."

Coley adds: "Rainforests are disappearing at a terrifying rate. Searching for drugs in the rainforests of developing countries might be one solution. In our research, not only are we finding potential pharmaceuticals, but we are contributing to conservation of the forests."

The study was funded by $3 million in grants to Coley and colleagues through the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Balboa, Panama, where they also hold appointments and spend a few months each year. The money came from the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Agriculture. The results were published in October's issue of the Ecological Society of America journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. The report was written by Coley, Kursar and 13 other scientists, most from the University of Panama.

Trying to save rainforests via "bioprospecting" for potential new medicines is based on the idea that developing nations will work to conserve their rainforests if nondestructive industries such as bioprospecting, ecotourism and watershed protection provide greater economic benefits than logging and ranching.

But the concept has not been particular
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Contact: Phyllis Coley
coley@biology.utah.edu
801-581-7088
University of Utah
1-Oct-2003


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