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Bioprospecting Historical Texts
Alex Steffen, 16 May 05

A vast, untapped source of biomedical information may be sitting on the shelves of old libraries. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine created a new system for combining previously discrete methods of inquiry into plants used by traditional healers, cross-checking old medical texts with chemical screening efforts:

[T]he Ambonese Herbal is a 17th century medical text compiled by Gregory Everhard Rumpf, “Rumphius,” a German botanist. [It] explains the medical uses of almost 1300 native species of the Malay archipelago where Rumphius was stationed. The records are based on his questioning of local people on traditional healing treatments.

Rumphius’s work is one of many historical texts documenting what is know as “ethnomedical” information... in which shamans or healers were consulted to identify valuable species. In recent years, this approach has given way to high-throughput screening, in which thousands of random specimens are methodically tested by robotic technicians. ...

Eric Buenz ... has proposed a new, hybridized approach that combines the best aspects of both sources. Buenz and his colleagues analyzed the first volume of the Ambonese Herbal to test the new procedure. After translating the text into English from its original Dutch and Latin, two reviewers went through the volume and extracted all medical references. Afterwards, they drew up a table listing each species, the symptoms for which the plant was prescribed, and thus, its likely pharmacological function and abilities. This list of species was then checked against the International Plant Names Index database to identify misspellings and synonyms. Following this step, each species was looked up in NAPRALERT, a database listing all known biochemical and ethnomedical references to plants.

But this is only the beginning.

As technologies improve, bioprospecting in historical texts should become easier and more accurate:

The next step, says Mr Buenz, is to scale up and automate the process. "Our work with the Rumphius herbal was a proof of concept," he says. "The push now is to make the project high throughput with bioinformatics." Book scanners, he observes, have become cheaper and more efficient in recent years. The latest models can scan 1,000 pages an hour, yet are gentle enough to handle old and delicate tomes. And by using natural-language processing software to look for particular expressions, and cross-referencing potential matches with medical and botanical databases, the text can be analysed quickly. Manually combing through the text of the first volume of the "Ambonese Herbal " took four weeks, says Mr Buenz, but his experimental automated system did the same work in a few hours.

While there remain concerns about how plant samples are gathered in the wild, and who benefits from these discoveries, this seems to me to be a great example of the ancient knowledge and emergiong technologies together to help us create tools for building a better future.

In some ways, this reminds me of CLIWOC. I wonder what other realms of traditional or historical knowledge might be suitable for new efforts at exploration?

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Back to the future!

Posted by: Daniel Johnston on 17 May 05

Couldn't you have held off on this one until I was done with culling my library and getting rid of the old books?? This is definitely not helping me to declutter!

Posted by: W. David Stephenson on 17 May 05

How about architecture?

There is a green building organisation called Builders Without Borders that attempts to go beyond just building houses in poor parts of the world by reintroducing people to their own vernacular architecture.
The problem is, in many places this knowledge has been, or is close to being, forgotten. I would suggest this as a terrific use of this idea, databasing materials, methods and means for local builders to reclaim a local architecture, instead of living in corrugated tin and cinderblock huts.

Imagine if a community in a resource poor area could download building plans onto their cell phones that were climate appropriate, used local materials and would help reclaim, almost as a byproduct, traditional knowledge!

(Is Mr. Sinclair interested in this aspect of housing in his wonderful organisation?)

Posted by: justus on 17 May 05

Unfortunately, the title re bioprospecting is telling. These people can't be trusted, and though the idea is fascinating, the power dynamics behind it are just as ominous as every other instance of bioprospecting. How many of the enthusiasts here were excited about the human genome project's efforts to capture the genetic diversity of endangered indigenous people, also known as "isolates of historic interest." I doubt many. Good critiques of that one abound, but the same critique applies to this interest by Western power in the uncolonized resources of non-patriarchal forces: here historicity, self-healing, self reflection and herbology (even if some of this knowlege came from colonizers, the aforementioned traits themselves form a non-patriarchal alternative to alopathic, mechanistic institutions such as the Mayo clinic.)

These parts of the world (in the temporal and spacial sense) will be mined for precious resources by the same forces (Western imperial power) that are destroying the ability for people living such knowlege to themselves exist. Just like they said, quick get those genes out of the indigenous people before we destroy their habitat and thus their cultural too do projects like this say "quick, let's mine the past of resources before we complete our destruction of it's potential to exist." If said powerful forces were interested in supporting the ongoing existence of such knowlege there are lots of other ways they could spend their money. As it is, they are only interested in colonizing and mining it to death. Am I wrong?

Posted by: marshall on 19 May 05

You're entitled to your opinion, certainly.

Posted by: alex Steffen on 19 May 05



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