From a global perspective, fungi are the least-studied group of organisms with the greatest potential. They have already given us the most important class of drugs ever discovered — antibiotics. More recently, the fungal kingdom provided us with another blockbuster class of pharmaceuticals: statins, cholesterol-lowering drugs that rank among the most important and widely used medicines in the industrialized world today. Though both of these classes of pharmaceuticals were derived from temperate-zone fungi, tropical regions like Amazonia harbor many more species.
Once again, Western science knows very little about the potential utility of tropical fungi. Ethnobotanists in western Amazonia have often encountered piri-piri, a strange-looking sedge — a flowering, grasslike plant — reputed to feature many medicinal qualities. Detailed research in Peru with Indigenous colleagues by the American ethnobotanist Glenn Shepard unlocked the secret: The medicinal virtues attributed to this relatively chemically inert plant actually come from a fungus that infects it. Lab research revealed that this Amazonian fungus produces eight novel alkaloids related to L.S.D., and it is employed by Indigenous peoples to treat headaches and snakebite wounds, and to enhance coordination, control fertility and stanch birth-related hemorrhaging. Dr. Shepard considers piri-piri a sort of “ginseng of the Amazon,” because of its multifaceted, panacea-like medicinal uses. Thousands and thousands of fungi in Amazonia remain unstudied, their medicinal potential unknown.
The most significant major medical development in the past few years involving tropical organisms is the mainstreaming of hallucinogens into Western medicine. They represent the ultimate tools of the Indigenous shaman, who employs these plants and fungi like biological scalpels to investigate, diagnose, treat and sometimes cure ailments that have a partial emotional or spiritual basis. This is why these healers can often alleviate a medical problem unresponsive to therapies employed by Western physicians.
The use of these chemicals is rapidly gaining acceptance in traditional clinical settings. Many initial efforts have focused on the use of hallucinogens administered by Indigenous shamans: mescaline, psilocybin and ayahuasca — the latter from the Amazon. These mind-altering remedies have been clinically shown to produce promising therapeutic effects in some cases of addiction, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and end-of-life anxiety in terminal cancer patients.
Further formal studies are likely to take place for the treatment of anorexia, early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, insomnia, intractable pain and PTSD. This newfound interest in hallucinogenic therapies is not only improving our understanding of the human mind but also driving an enhanced appreciation of shamanic healing practices. And this shamanic therapeutic wisdom is not limited to hallucinogens: A single shaman may know and use 300 different plants for healing purposes.
Ultimately, the question has to be asked: Who should benefit first and foremost from the pharmaceutical treasures of Amazonia?
The answer is clear: the Amazonians. The Amazon is home to more than 30 million people, and almost all who live outside the very few large cities rely to some degree on the great forest as a source of medicines.