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TEDGlobal 2014

Ameenah Gurib-Fakim: Humble plants that hide surprising secrets

October 27, 2014

In this intriguing talk, biologist Ameenah Gurib-Fakim introduces us to rare plant species from isolated islands and regions of Africa. Meet the shape-shifting benjoin; the baume de l'ile plate, which might offer a new treatment for asthma; and the iconic baobab tree, which could hold the key to the future of food. Plus: monkey apples.

Ameenah Gurib-Fakim - Biodiversity scientist
Ameenah Gurib-Fakim explores the medical and nutrition secrets of the plants of her island, Mauritius. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
You know, it's a big privilege for me
00:12
to be working in one of the
biodiversity hotspots in the world:
00:15
the Mascarene Islands in the Indian Ocean.
00:19
These islands — Mauritius,
Rodrigues, and Réunion —
00:21
along with the island of Madagascar,
00:25
they are blessed with unique plants
00:28
found nowhere else in the world.
00:30
And today I will tell you
about five of them
00:32
and their particular features
00:35
and why these plants are so unique.
00:37
Take a look at this plant.
00:40
I call it benjoin in the local vernacular,
00:41
and the botanical name
is Terminalia bentzoe,
00:45
subspecies bentzoe.
00:49
This subspecies is endemic to Mauritius,
00:51
and its particular feature
00:54
is its heterophylly.
00:56
What do I mean by heterophylly?
00:58
It's that the same plant
01:00
has got leaves that are different shapes and sizes.
01:02
Now, these plants have evolved
01:05
very far away from the mainland,
01:07
and within specific ecosystems.
01:09
Often, these particular features
01:12
have evolved as a response to the threat
01:15
presented by the local fauna,
01:18
in this case, grazing tortoises.
01:20
Tortoises are known to have poor eyesight,
01:24
and as such, they tend to avoid the plants
01:27
they don't recognize.
01:30
So this evolutionary
foil safeguards the plant
01:32
against these rather cute animals,
01:35
and protects it and of course
ensures its survival.
01:38
Now the question you're
probably asking yourself is,
01:43
why is she telling us all these stories?
01:46
The reason for that is that we tend to overlook
01:49
the diversity and the variety of the natural world.
01:53
These particular habitats are unique
01:57
and they are host to a whole lot of plants.
02:00
We don't realize how valuable
02:04
and how precious these resources are,
02:06
and yet, through our insouciance,
02:09
we keep on destroying them.
02:11
We're all familiar
02:13
with the macro impact of urbanization,
02:15
climate change, resource exploitation,
02:18
but when that one last plant —
02:22
or animal for that matter —
02:24
when that very last specimen
02:26
has disappeared from the face of this Earth,
02:28
we would have lost
02:30
an entire subset of the Earth's biology,
02:32
and with it, important plants
with medicinal potential
02:36
or which could have ingredients
02:39
that would speak to the cosmetic,
02:41
nutrition, pharma,
02:43
and even the ethno-veterinary sectors,
02:45
be gone forever.
02:47
And here we have a very prime example
02:49
of the iconic dodo, which comes from Mauritius,
02:51
and, of course, we know is
now a symbol of extinction.
02:54
We know plants have a
fundamental role to play.
02:58
Well, first of all, they feed us
03:01
and they also give us
the oxygen we breathe,
03:03
but plants are also the source
03:05
of important, biologically active ingredients
03:08
that we should be studying very carefully,
03:11
because human societies over the millennia,
03:14
they have developed important knowledge,
03:19
cultural traditions,
03:22
and important plant-based medicinal resources.
03:24
Here's a data point:
03:28
1.4 percent of the entire land surface
03:30
is home to 40 percent of
the species of higher plants,
03:34
35 percent of the species of vertebrates,
03:38
and this 1.4 percent
03:41
represents the 25 biodiversity hotspots in the world,
03:43
and this 1.4 percent of the entire land surface
03:48
already provides for 35 percent
03:51
of the ecosystem services
03:54
that vulnerable people depend on.
03:56
And as you can see,
03:58
the island of Mauritius
04:00
where I work and where I live,
04:01
belongs to one such biodiversity hotspot,
04:03
and I study the unique plants
04:06
on the island for their
biomedical applications.
04:08
Now, let's go back again
04:12
to that first plant I showed you,
04:13
the one, of course, with
different-shaped leaves
04:15
and different sizes, Terminalia bentzoe,
04:18
subspecies bentzoe,
04:21
a plant only found in Mauritius.
04:23
Now, the local people,
04:25
they used a decoction of the leaves
04:27
against infectious diseases.
04:29
Now our work, that is,
04:31
the scientific validation of
this traditional information,
04:34
has shown that precisely
04:37
that leaf extract shows activity, potent activity,
04:39
against a wide range of bacteria
04:44
that could be pathogenic to humans.
04:46
Now, could this plant be the answer
04:49
to antibiotic resistance?
04:51
You know, antibiotic resistance is proving to be
04:54
a big challenge globally.
04:56
While we may not be sure, one thing is certain:
04:59
we will not want this plant to disappear.
05:02
But the harsh reality is that
05:04
this particular plant is in fact
05:07
considered to be vulnerable
05:09
in its natural habitat.
05:11
This brings me to another example.
05:13
This bush here is known as baume de l'ile plate
05:15
in the local vernacular.
05:19
The botanical name is Psiadia arguta.
05:21
It's a plant which is rare,
05:23
which is endemic to Mauritius.
05:25
It used to grow on the mainland,
05:28
but through the sheer
pressures of urbanization
05:29
has been pushed out of the mainland,
05:32
and we've managed to bring it back
05:34
from the brink of extinction
05:36
by developing in vitro plants
05:37
which are now growing in the wild.
05:39
Now, one thing I must
point out straightaway
05:41
is that not all plants
05:43
can be developed in vitro.
05:46
While we humans, we are
happy in our comfort zone,
05:49
these plants also need
05:53
their ecosystem to be preserved,
05:55
and they don't react — endemic plants
05:58
don't react to very harsh
changes in their ecosystem,
06:00
and yet we know what are the challenges
06:03
that climate change, for example,
06:05
is posing to these plants.
06:06
Now, the local people again use the leaves
06:08
in traditional medicine
06:11
against respiratory problems.
06:13
Now, our preliminary labwork
06:15
on the leaf extract has shown
06:17
that precisely these
leaves contain ingredients
06:19
that are very close,
in terms of structures,
06:23
chemical structures, to those medicines
06:26
which are sold in the chemist's shop
06:29
against asthma.
06:30
So who knows
06:32
what humanity will benefit from
06:34
should this plant decide
to reveal all its secrets.
06:36
Now, I come from the developing world
06:42
where we are forever being
challenged with this issue
06:44
of population explosion.
06:47
Africa is the continent
which is getting younger,
06:49
and whenever one talks
about population explosion,
06:52
one talks about the issue of food security
06:56
as being the other side of the same coin.
06:58
Now this plant here, the baobab,
07:01
could be part of the answer.
07:03
It's an underutilized, neglected food plant.
07:05
It defines the landscape of West Africa,
07:08
where it is known as the tree of life,
07:11
and later on I will tell you why
07:13
the Africans consider it to be the tree of life.
07:16
Now interestingly, there are many legends
07:19
which are associated with this plant.
07:21
Because of its sheer size,
07:23
it was meant to be lording over lesser plants,
07:25
so God didn't like this arrogance,
07:27
uprooted it, and planted it upside down,
07:29
hence its particular shape.
07:32
And if you look at this tree again
07:35
within the African context,
07:37
in West Africa, it's known
as the palaver tree,
07:39
because it performs great social functions.
07:43
Now if you have a problem in the community,
07:46
meeting under the palaver tree
07:48
with the chiefs or the tribesmen
07:50
would be synonymous to trying to find a solution
07:52
to that particular problem,
07:54
and also to reinforce trust and respect
07:56
among members of the community.
07:59
From the scientific point of view,
08:01
there are eight species of baobab in the world.
08:03
There's one from Africa,
08:06
one from Australia,
08:08
and six are endemic
08:10
to the island of Madagascar.
08:13
The one I have showed you
08:14
is the one from Africa,
08:16
Adansonia digitata.
08:17
Now, the flower, this
beautiful white flower,
08:19
it opens at night, is pollinated by bats,
08:22
and it gives rise to the fruit
08:24
which is curiously known
08:26
as the monkey apple.
08:28
The monkeys are not stupid animals.
08:30
They know what's good for them.
08:31
Now, if you open the fruit of the baobab,
08:33
you'll see a white, floury pulp,
08:36
which is very rich in nutrients
08:38
and has got protein,
08:40
more protein than in human milk.
08:43
Yes, you heard right:
08:47
more protein than in human milk.
08:49
And this is one of the reasons why
08:52
the nutrition companies of this world,
08:54
they are looking for this fruit to provide
08:56
what we know as reinforced food.
08:58
The seeds give an oil, a very stable oil
09:01
which is sought after
by the cosmetic industry
09:05
to give to produce body lotions, for example.
09:08
And if you look at the trunk,
09:11
the trunk, of course, safeguards water,
09:13
which is often harvested by a thirsty traveler,
09:16
and the leaves are used in traditional medicine
09:19
against infectious disease.
09:21
Now, you can see now why the Africans consider it
09:23
to be the tree of life.
09:25
It's a complete plant,
09:27
and in fact, the sheer size of these trees
09:29
is hiding a massive potential,
09:31
not only for the pharma, nutrition,
and the cosmetic industry.
09:33
What I have showed you here
09:37
is only the species from Africa,
09:39
Adansonia digitata.
09:41
We have six species yet in Madagascar,
09:43
and we don't know what
is the potential of this plant,
09:46
but one thing we know is that the flora
09:49
is considered to be
threatened with extinction.
09:52
Let me take you to Africa again,
09:54
and introduce you to one of my very favorite,
09:57
the resurrection plant.
10:00
Now here you'll find
10:02
that even Jesus has competition.
10:03
(Laughter)
10:05
Now, this plant here has developed
10:06
remarkable tolerance to drought,
10:09
which enables it to withstand
10:12
up to 98 percent dehydration
over the period of a year
10:15
without damage,
10:19
and yet it can regenerate
itself almost completely
10:21
overnight, over 24 hours, and flower.
10:25
Now, us human beings,
10:29
we're always on the lookout for the elixir of youth.
10:31
We don't want to get old, and rightly so.
10:35
Why should we, especially if you can afford it?
10:36
And this gives you an indication
10:40
of what the plant looks like before.
10:42
Now, if you are an inexperienced gardener,
10:45
the first thing you'll do
when you visit the garden
10:48
is to uproot this plant because it's dead.
10:50
But if you water it, this is what you get.
10:52
Absolutely amazing.
10:57
Now, if you look at our aging process,
10:59
the aging process is in fact the loss of water
11:02
from the upper epidermis, resulting in wrinkling
11:04
as we know it, especially women,
11:07
we are so conscious of this.
11:09
And this plant, in fact, is giving
the cosmetic chemists
11:11
very important ingredients
11:15
that are actually finding ways
11:17
to slow down the aging process
11:20
and at the same time reinforce the cells
11:23
against the onslaught of environmental toxins.
11:25
Now, these four examples
11:29
I have just given you
11:32
are just a very tiny reminder
11:35
as to how our health
11:38
and our survival are closely linked
11:42
to the health and the resilience
11:45
of our ecosystem,
11:48
and why we should be very careful
11:50
about preserving biodiversity.
11:52
Every time a forest is cut down,
11:55
every time a marsh is filled in,
11:58
it is a potential lab that goes with it,
12:02
and which we will never, ever recover.
12:05
And I know what I'm talking about,
12:08
coming from Mauritius and missing the dodo.
12:09
Let me finish with just one last example.
12:13
Conservation issues are normally guided
12:17
towards rare, endemic plants,
12:21
but what we call exotic plants,
12:24
that is, the ones which grow in many
different habitats across the world,
12:26
they also need to be considered.
12:30
You know why? Because the environment plays
12:32
a very important role
12:35
in modifying the composition of that plant.
12:37
So let's take a look at this plant here,
12:40
Centella asiatica. It's a weed.
12:42
We call it a weed.
12:45
Now, Centella asiatica
grows across the world
12:47
in many different habitats —
in Africa, in Asia —
12:50
and this plant has been instrumental
12:53
in providing a solution
to that dreadful disease
12:55
called leprosy in Madagascar in the 1940s.
12:57
Now, while Centella
grows across the world —
13:02
in Africa, in Asia —
the best quality Centella
13:05
comes from Madagascar,
13:09
because that Centella contains
the three vital ingredients
13:11
which are sought after by the pharma
13:15
and the cosmetic companies.
13:17
And the cosmetic companies
are already using it
13:20
to make regenerating cream.
13:22
Now, there is an ancient saying
13:25
that for every disease known to mankind,
13:28
there is a plant to cure it.
13:32
Now, you may not
believe in ancient sayings.
13:34
You may think they're obsolete
13:36
now that our science and
technology are so powerful.
13:38
So you may look on Centella as being
13:41
an insignificant, humble weed,
13:43
which, if destroyed, won't be missed.
13:46
But you know, there is no such thing as a weed.
13:49
It's a plant.
13:52
It's a living biological lab
13:53
that may well have answers
13:56
to the question that we may have,
13:58
but we have to ensure
14:00
that it has the right to live.
14:02
Thank you.
14:05
(Applause)
14:07

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Ameenah Gurib-Fakim - Biodiversity scientist
Ameenah Gurib-Fakim explores the medical and nutrition secrets of the plants of her island, Mauritius.

Why you should listen

She calls herself a chemist and a gardener (and she has a collection of 200 bonsai), but Ameenah Gurib-Fakim is the leading scientist studying the flora of one of the world's key biodiversity hotspots, the island of Mauritius. As the managing director of the Centre for Phytotherapy Research (Cephyr) and a professor of organic chemistry at the University of Mauritius, she explores and analyzes plants from the island and their health, nutritional and cosmetic applications.

She co-authored the African Herbal Pharmacopoeia, the first resource of its kind, led the first regional research project on the inventory and study of medicinal and aromatic plants of the Indian Ocean, and was the lead coordinating author on the international assessment of agricultural knowledge, science and technology for development, spearheaded by the World Bank. 

Ameenah was honored as one of Foreign Policy's 2015 Global Thinkers .

In June 2015, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim became the first female president of Mauritius.

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