Many medications are derived from natural chemicals made by a diverse group of organisms. For example, many plants produce secondary plant compounds, which are toxins used to protect the plant from insects and other animals that eat them. Some of these secondary plant compounds also work as human medicines. Contemporary societies that live close to the land often have a broad knowledge of the medicinal uses of plants growing in their area. For centuries in Europe, older knowledge about the medical uses of plants was compiled in herbals—books that identified the plants and their uses. Humans are not the only animals to use plants for medicinal reasons. The other great apes, orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas have all been observed self-medicating with plants.
Modern pharmaceutical science also recognizes the importance of these plant compounds. Examples of significant medicines derived from plant compounds include aspirin, codeine, digoxin, atropine, and vincristine (Figure 21.5). Many medications were once derived from plant extracts but are now synthesized. It is estimated that, at one time, 25 percent of modern drugs contained at least one plant extract. That number has probably decreased to about 10 percent as natural plant ingredients are replaced by synthetic versions of the plant compounds. Antibiotics, which are responsible for extraordinary improvements in health and lifespans in developed countries, are compounds largely derived from fungi and bacteria.
In recent years, animal venoms and poisons have excited intense research for their medicinal potential. By 2007, the FDA had approved five drugs based on animal toxins to treat diseases such as hypertension, chronic pain, and diabetes. Another five drugs are undergoing clinical trials and at least six drugs are being used in other countries. Other toxins under investigation come from mammals, snakes, lizards, various amphibians, fish, snails, octopuses, and scorpions.
Aside from representing billions of dollars in profits, these medications improve people’s lives. Pharmaceutical companies are actively looking for new natural compounds that can function as medicines. It is estimated that one third of pharmaceutical research and development is spent on natural compounds and that about 35 percent of new drugs brought to market between 1981 and 2002 were from natural compounds.
Finally, it has been argued that humans benefit psychologically from living in a biodiverse world. The chief proponent of this idea is entomologist E. O. Wilson. He argues that human evolutionary history has adapted us to living in a natural environment and that built environments generate stresses that affect human health and well-being. There is considerable research into the psychologically regenerative benefits of natural landscapes that suggest the hypothesis may hold some truth.