Jan. 29, 1999 ITHACA, N.Y. -- Field studies conducted in the Amazon rain forest by Cornell University undergraduate students of chemical ecology and published in the first issue of the first journal of its kind are beginning to answer some long-standing questions: Will a cup of lichen tea four times a day cure urinary tract infection or even gonorrhea? Can a bird's choice of nest-building materials boost its immune system? Why do some Indians prefer the honey of stingless bees over honey from killer bees?
Chemistry -- not bee temperament -- explains the antibiotic value of honey from the mellow insects, student scientists report in Vol. 1, No. 1 of Emanations from the Rainforest. Likewise, there is a chemical explanation for birds' disease resistance and for the curative power of a lichen that Piaroa Indians call odoche jupacua, or "iguana toe."
The indigenous people and other inhabitants of the Amazon rain forest knew what worked for them but not why -- until Cornell undergraduate students began their scientific expeditions in 1996. Every year since then the students have returned, employing ethnobotany techniques to query their Indian informants about the plants that they and the rain forest animals use. With the prescribed plant materials in hand, the students go to work in Cornell's field laboratory, performing chemical extractions and bioassays, hoping to learn why some plants are so effective against bacteria, fungi and other pathogenic organisms.
And now they have a way to let the rest of the world know about their findings, the first -- and so far, only -- scientific journal about ethnobotany and chemical ecology to be written and edited by college students. Financial support for the journal is provided by Cornell alumni.
"The ongoing studies may lead to the discovery of important new drugs for a variety of epidemics," says Gustavo Azenha, a Cornell senior and editor-in-chief of the new journal's first issue. "More importantly, the research efforts have implications for biodiversity conservation and indigenous rights in the region."
Cornell junior and assistant editor Nicole Salgado adds: "Sharing our knowledge is an essential way to ensure that these ancient lands are here to stay -- or they shall disappear unrecognized, like myths of old."
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