With their rich repertoire of anti-infective substances, medicinal plants have always been key in the human fight to survive pathogens and parasites. The search for herbal drugs with novel structures and effects is still one of the great challenges of natural product research today. Scientists from Leipzig University (UL), the Leibniz Institute of Plant Biochemistry (IPB) and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) now report a way to simplify the search for bioactive natural compounds using data analyses on the phylogenetic relationships, spatial distribution and secondary metabolites of plants. Their new approach makes it possible to predict which groups of plants and which geographical areas are likely to have a particularly high density of species with medicinal effects. This could pave the way for a more targeted search for new medicinal plants in the future.
Over 70% of all antibiotics currently in use originate from natural substances obtained from plants, fungi, bacteria and marine organisms. In the battle against infectious diseases, humans are particularly dependent on new drugs from natural sources, as pathogens are constantly changing and producing new dangerous strains. In the plant kingdom alone, only about 10% of all vascular plants have so far been screened for suitable active compounds. There are currently about 250,000 structures of natural products stored in scientific databases, with an estimated total of ~500,000 in plants alone. So far, however, researchers have not systematically tested the entire plant kingdom; instead, they have conducted isolated searches for drugs, partly in plants with known medicinal properties, and partly in preferred species or geographical regions, or depending on the type and sensitivity of the detection methods used.