What branch of biology studies the environment to advance medicine?
February 24, 2009 11:59 PM   Subscribe

What are some in the field jobs that involve studying the environment seeking medical advances? A friend asked me the following question, and I looked around and was stumped by it. A couple basic things came to my attention, like tracking the spread of different illnesses in developing countries and passing out vaccines, but I hope I'm missing something. "What branch of biology encompasses the outdoor study of plants, animals, environments, and whatever else in order to find medical advancements? You see in movies people hunting in the amazon for weird plants in order to cure diseases. Is this a real profession? Could I really go to Africa to study a plague because the genetic information found within it could lead to a cure for cancer?"
posted by Tres to Science & Nature (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Could I really go to Africa to study a plague because the genetic information found within it could lead to a cure for cancer?

No. At least, I'm pretty sure the NIH wouldn't fund this.

You see in movies people hunting in the amazon for weird plants in order to cure diseases. Is this a real profession?

Those are botanists.

What branch of biology encompasses the outdoor study of plants, animals, environments, and whatever else in order to find medical advancements?

You'd possibly be interested in the idea of environmental genomics. It's really not so much a branch of biology, however, as it is something that a molecular biologist or biochemist might do.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:05 AM on February 25, 2009


Ethnobotany (among others)
posted by bottlebrushtree at 12:07 AM on February 25, 2009


I have yet to get around to reading it, but the other day my dad dropped off a book you'll probably find interesting:

The Serpent and The Rainbow - "A Harvard Scientist's astonishing journey into the secret societies of Haitian voodoo, zombis, and magic" by ethnobotanist, Wade Davis.

My dad is also in the middle of another book, who's name escapes me which he described as "Biochemists immersing themselves in exotic cultures and getting fucked up on who knows what in the name of medical advancement." I'll see if I can find the title of it for you, but at the very least, yes there is a field of study that tries to reconcile exotic remedies with modern medical research.
posted by clearly at 2:37 AM on February 25, 2009


I think the related professions divide down into those who specialist in the plants, those who understand the societies that use the plants, those that understand how the chemicals in the plants might be used medically and those involved with all the aspects of trying to commercialise a find. So there are a range of potential occupations that cover medicine, the social sciences, biological sciences and even areas such as law or marketing.

My own (very brief) experience of doing this was as a volunteer working in Tanzania on an expedition run by these guys. I accompanied a local medicine man and a botanist on forays where my main use was probably carrying collected samples. However quite a number of plants seem to have claimed uses as aphrodisiacs. Whenever such a plant was identified the medicine man would always be somewhat vague about the usage - until a moment when the (female) botanist was not looking. Then he would do a very effective mime - which usually involved a forearm and a big grin.

- Anyway volunteering for expeditions such as this can sometimes serve as a useful way of getting field experience.
posted by rongorongo at 2:43 AM on February 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


This sort of touches on what my current grad research is - I'm a Masters student studying H5N1 (avian flu) from an Ecosystem Approach to Health. I'm currently living and working in Vietnam for a research institute while collecting research that is partially funded by the WHO and Ministry of Health here. I'm very lucky, since there are not many people doing what I do!

Ecosystem Approach to Health a new and emerging field, but it's growing. It's inter-disciplinary/ team-based/multi-variable/mix of quantitative and qualitative tools/participatory action research. Many of the practitioners (like me) are researchers in more traditional fields (epidemiologists, veterinarians, family doctors, ecologists, etc.) who are tired of the narrow viewpoint their discipline brings to the table and want to branch out. Last summer I was invited to participate in the first-ever short course in Canada to teach emerging researchers the tools of the trade related to Ecosystem Health - CoPEH-Canada.
posted by carabiner at 4:33 AM on February 25, 2009




There's a long pipeline between finding weird stuff and a medical advance. There's much you need to understand about an unusual organism before you can hope to apply anything to medicine. But it is still worthwhile to find them. Unusual microbes have also led to some of our most widely used biotechnology products (for example, Taq polymerase).

I don't think there is a single field that looks for medical advances in lots of biological domains at once. Instead you will find microbiologists and botanists looking for this sort of thing within their own area.

Norman Pace's Lab at University of Colorado–Boulder engages in a environmental microbiology search for interesting new microbes. Their work was featured in the IMAX documentary Amazing Caves, which is a fun movie.
posted by grouse at 7:02 AM on February 25, 2009


Would pharmaceutical botany or phytochemistry be what you're looking for? However, these branches are more concerned with identifying the mechanism of action of natural substances that are known/thought to be therapeutic, and not with going out into the jungle collecting specimens of everything you can find. Like mr_roboto said, the NIH is unlikely to fund such fishing-trip style expeditions.
posted by twoporedomain at 7:52 AM on February 25, 2009


Pharmacognosy is pretty close I think.
posted by peacheater at 7:58 AM on February 25, 2009


Other things that haven't been directly mentioned: zoopharmacognosy is the study of animals' self-medication. Pretty cool, if a little obscure. Also ethnomycology is like ethnobotany, but with fungi (from magic mushrooms to penicillin).
posted by hydropsyche at 8:28 AM on February 25, 2009


Thanks guys, all of that was very helpful.

From my friend: "Dude, that website is awesome. Thank you, I have a lot to think about."
posted by Tres at 12:22 AM on March 2, 2009


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