THE BLOG
02/18/2014 03:48 pm ET Updated Apr 20, 2014

Could New Medicines Be Hiding in Your Backyard?

Have you ever taken a walk through the forest on a journey to make a breakthrough medical discovery? Have you ever even considered the possibility that you, as an amateur scientist, could make such an impact? What if you had the ability to discover new sources of medicines, such as antibiotics or anti-cancer drugs, right in your backyard? Or what if there are alternatives to treatments like Botox just waiting to be found? I have been spending some time thinking about this, and now it looks like we might be able to do something about it.

Sometimes, when I have a few moments to myself, I like to sift through social networking sites to see how people are coming together to make changes in the scientific community. I came across The ILIAD Project (International Laboratory for Identification of Antibacterial Drugs). The goal of this project is to provide people with three-step kits that would allow for antibiotic testing right at home! So why did this project catch my eye? Not only does it aim to spread awareness about the important issue of antibiotic resistance, but it brings science literally to your own backyard. How cool is that? Any type of scientist, young or old, professional or amateur, has the opportunity to do cutting-edge research, making it a really fun educational experience. This is a great example of how the most impactful science learning occurs: by making the fun aspect of science accessible to everyone.

Through the ILIAD project, different kits are designed to allow you to begin experimenting with organisms such as fungi, bacteria, plants, and even insects! In order for us to wrap our heads around the strength of this type of worldwide project, let's take a moment to imagine the vast biodiversity of our planet. Think about all the different species of known plants (about 375,000), known fungi (about 75,000), and known insects (about 925,000 species) around the world. Now consider that scientists have estimated that actual numbers of these species are in the millions. That number of unknown species is remarkable! Making a worldwide initiative to seek out new medicines could allow us to explore areas of our planet that might have otherwise been overlooked. So throughout all of this, I really got to thinking about other possibilities: Beside antibiotics, what else is out there that a project like this could help us discover?

Beyond Antibiotics: What Are Some Other Weird Medicines Nature Has Provided?

In many species of plants, researchers have discovered fungi living symbiotically within the plant. Can you believe that? Hiding inside plants are friendly fungi known as fungal endophytes. These friendly species are useful to study because oftentimes they produce chemicals that protect against predators, helping the plant survive. But guess what! Some of these chemicals that are produced by these fungi have been found to be potentially useful in the medical field, ranging from antimicrobial and antimalarial chemicals to even anticancer chemicals. The ILIAD Project could make it easier to uncover fungal endophytes because, as of now, it seems to be a relatively under-researched aspect in mycology.

And what about the familiar cosmetic treatment Botox? Botox uses neurotoxins produced from the potentially deadly species of bacterium Clostridium botulinum. These neurotoxins induce paralysis, which has been used not only for cosmetic purposes but for the treatment of migraines, muscle stiffness, overactive bladder symptoms, and certain types of eye-muscle problems. So what if there is a safer alternative to this treatment? What if we could find something that acts similarly to Botox but comes from a less-deadly organism? But this also brings up the issue of safety with regards to culturing your own biological specimens, because dealing with species like C. botulinum can be extremely dangerous if food contamination were to occur. What do you think? Is it really the safest idea to encourage people without the appropriate scientific experience to begin growing bacteria and fungi in their own home? I love the idea of inspiring people to seek out and explore their environment on the microscopic level, but I also think that the safety of this idea needs to be considered a bit further.

Just think about all the different species of organisms you could encounter on a walk through a forest that could have hidden medicinal properties that we need! Amateur scientists, like you and me, have the capacity to help with medical advancements. But in order for us to do that, we must appreciate the biodiversity that surrounds us each and every day. We need to open our eyes up a bit more, get a little bit creative, and have fun seeing the science in our everyday surroundings.

As we say at Arizona Science Center, never stop wondering!