Monday, October 26, 2009

Biological prospecting in your own backyard

(The breast feathers from this dickcissel may be effective in treating ED.)

Picture this scene for a moment from 500 years ago, somewhere in Ethiopia or Arabia.  A man picks some ripe fruit from a plant we now call the coffee tree.  Inside the reddish fruit are two seeds embedded in a gelatinous material with the consistency of an 8-year old's snot in January, although it is somewhat sweet.  He removes the seeds, somehow dissolves the snotty material that coats each seed, dries the seeds, roasts them over a fire, grinds them up, pours hot water over them, and drinks the beverage so created.  Are you kidding me?  Although used originally only in religious ceremonies, coffee is one of the most popular drinks in the world today, with over 100 million people dependent on coffee for their livelihoods. 

Or picture this from about 2,000 years ago.  Some Native Americans, and the early Greeks as well, happened to suck on the leaf of a willow tree at the time they had a headache or a fever and found that their symptoms improved.  Later, the bark was soaked in water and the solution used as a medicinal.  It turns out that willows contain a chemical we now call aspirin.  Aspirin, which is produced commercially these days, is probably the oldest and most widely used medicine by humans.  What are the odds?

Now, I don't know what the trial and error process was for these early discoverers of coffee and aspirin, or for maple syrup, bee honey, silkworm silk for clothing, tobacco for smoking, or any of thousands of other such examples.  The facts are clear: humans have been exploring and investigating the fauna and flora in their environment for a very long time, resulting in many useful products that we take for granted today.  This continues today in a highly technological milieu in an endeavor called "bioprospecting", which I will explore in a future post.  But to the ancients, there was a logic to many of these discoveries.  For example, willows are found in low lying wet or damp areas, which is also where the fever or "ague" was prevalent.  It made sense to them that there would be a treatment for the ailment that was found in the same area.  We will employ that same logic below.

Given that I spend a lot of time in my woods, and I know the plants and animals pretty well, why can't DrTom discover a really useful food or health remedy on his own.  Those early humans didn't even attend The Ohio State University.  I have some ideas that might work.

1.  Collect 8-10 earwigs, mash them up with a mortar and pestle from your kitchen, and add a teaspoon of cheap whiskey (for heaven's sake, don't use a single-malt scotch).  Strain out the body parts of the insects, gently warm the remaining solution, and pour it carefully into an infected ear.  It could relieve ear aches. (See the idea here: earwigs to cure ear aches.)

2.  Gather up 6-8 red fruits from a flowering dogwood tree.  Mash them in your mortar and pestle (but washed after the earwig procedure), blend in some fresh deer pellets, and add a splash of warm water.  This slurry can be used to spread on your family pet's coat and it might repel ticks and fleas.  (The dogwood is the active ingredient, but dogs love the smell of deer poop, so they will allow you to apply this liberally.)  I would keep the dog off your bed for about a week after application.

3.  For men over 60.  Capture a live dickcissel (the meadow bird of the midwestern U.S.) and collect several breast feathers.  (Can you guess where I am going with this?)  Soak the feathers in cheap vodka for about a day.  Strain out the feathers, add a shot of dry vermouth and a dash of Angostura bitters, and shake gently.  Imbibe slowly during Happy Hour.  Should work for ED.  If you maintain an erection for more than eight hours, rejoice!, and then consult a physician.

These are just a few ideas off the top of my head.  If you can think of more, please write them in a comment to this post.  The right idea could make us millions.  But I want only "green" suggestions.  Notice I did not think the dickcissel liver would work, only breast feathers, which are renewable.  For those of you reading this who are economists or political scientists, if you remove the bird's liver, it dies.  Think broadly, dig deeply, and tread lightly.  Happy prospecting!