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Weeds in disturbed areas may be source of more medically important compounds than plants in tropical rainforests

Athens, GA Conservationists have long pointed out that primary tropical rainforests may have dramatic value because of important and undiscovered medicinal plants. New research by an anthropology graduate student at the University of Georgia, however, has found that weeds in easy-to-reach disturbed areas may be even more important.

The study, by John R. Stepp at UGA and Daniel E. Moerman of the University of Michigan-Dearborn, appears to turn some theories of medicinal flora on their heads.

"I was really amazed by what we found," said Stepp. "The study is based on my field work with the Highland Maya in Chiapas, Mexico. We also used an exhaustive database of over 2,500 medicinal plants used by Native North Americans."

The research was published today in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology. The database used in the study was compiled by Moerman.

The idea that tropical rainforests may hold the key to new medicines that can solve everything from AIDS to cancer has been around for some time. Indeed, one study found that of the 95 plant species now used for prescription drugs, 39 originate in and around tropical forests.

Stepp, however, began to ask a simple question during his doctoral field work in the Mexican state of Chiapas and research with North American tribes: Why would indigenous people walk miles to find medicinal plants if the plants were available on a roadside a few houses down? Working with the Maya in Chiapas, Stepp found that, in fact, nearly all the medically important plants being used grow as weeds in disturbed areas not far from their houses or villages.

"What we found is that people use what they have nearby, except on rare occasions," said Stepp.

While considerable scientific attention has been given to the potential value of medicinal plants deep in rainforests, very little research has been done on the potential medicinal value of common weeds. (Weeds are usually considered as plants th
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Contact: John Stepp
rstepp@arches.uga.edu
706-227-9553
University of Georgia
15-Mar-2001


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