Au Naturel!

People range from being too eager or too shy about putting substances in their body. Being skeptics, we know their reasoning can be derived from pretty shitty logic. I have heard homeopathy advocates argue that some substances are safer than something distributed by pharmaceutical companies because it is au naturel! There seems to be a negative connotation about drugs synthesized in labs. However, the general population doesn’t stop to consider where researchers come up with novel drug discovery ideas? How many pharmaceuticals come from naturally existing substances?

Many, many drugs are seeded from natural products. In fact, an entire field is named natural products chemistry as evidence by the American Chemical Society journal dedicated entirely to this field. A large portion of this field is dedicated to drug development. Natural product researchers are actively using substances found all over the earth for drug development ideas.

Let’s take a trip back to the 1920’s. We have all heard the story about Alexander Fleming's serendipitous penicillin discovery. He left bacterial cell cultures in the lab for the weekend and upon his return the bacteria were deceased due to fungus growth. Fortunately, he didn’t trash the entire thing and pursued his discovery. His failed cultures led to the largest class of antibiotics still in existence.

That is the science side of the story. Now let's view this with a wider lens. Fungi have been growing in natural environments for millions of years combating bacteria. They grow on many things such as on trees, food, and fruit with similar functionality. One could even say, that they have evolved to protect other organisms from bacteria. 

Bacterial Culture

Of course, penicillin isn’t the only natural product to have medicinal functionality. People are aware of common examples like morphine that is useful for pain management. Less renowned drugs like Taxol, a common cancer treatment, was discovered on the bark of a Pacific yew tree. Scientists search all over the world for new substances that could have valuable medicinal purposes. Nature has been sorting out their own problems longer than we have been here, so it is brilliant to take a cue from them.

People hear about researchers searching Amazon jungles for new drugs, but despite it being one of the most remote places on land it is still reasonably easy to explore. It seems less obvious, but ~2/3 of the world is underwater. One can imagine there are many hidden medicinal treasures below sea level. It is true that scientists have been diving the floors near the Caribbean and Hawaii for years searching for products to isolate and screen. I for damn sure would want to be on a dive trip to look for awesome coral fungi to solve the world’s problems. 


I wanted to highlight a scientist whose research I find completely awesome. Professor Bill Baker, at the University of South Florida, is definitely aiming to collect high lying fruit. He is doing his research in the icy waters of Antarctica. His group goes on expeditions to the research bases in the deep south. Once down there, they SCUBA dive to collect sponges. Further, they take their samples back to the lab to isolate natural products on their specimens. One of the natural products they isolated proves to be a possible malaria treatment. How awesome is that?!? Diving for sponges in freezing Antarctic water could turn into a treatment for one of the world's most widespread diseases.

So next time people take the 'this product is natural argument', remind them that many, many of the world's pharmaceuticals are a result of our natural environment. 


Jacqueline, a true Floridian, wandered up to the tundra of Athens, Georgia to receive her PhD in computational quantum chemistry. Returning to her roots, she is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher in Tampa in the field of computational biochemistry investigating the wonders of penicillin-like drugs. When she is not slaving over the computer, her varied interests include international travel, Brazilian jiu jitsu, kickboxing, fancy food, (American) football, and Belgian quadrupels. She is also the founder of, a football blog with an exclusive female writing staff. Check out her sports ramblings there or follow her on Twitter @jhargis9.

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  1. Professor Baker's research couldn't come at a better time as drug-resistant malaria is on the rise. Also, the masthead image on his website is awesome. 

  2. The flip side of the "this product is natural argument" is the fact that many natural substances can kill you, dead as a door nail, faster than than a Darwin Award nominee can say "Hey, watch this!"

  3. My only concern with the "Actually, many pharmaceuticals are naturally derived" argument is that it could be sen as conceeding the poin that naturally derived drugs are necessarily better than synthesized. For that reason, I'm more comfortable using arguments like mcskeptic's, above, which point out that "natural" doesn't mean "healthy."

  4. The most bizarre naturalistic fallacy debate I ever got into was with a fellow hippie who kept pushing the "natural good, synthetic bad" thing, but then lumped LSD in with natural drugs. When I pointed out that LSD was synthetic, he said he was synthesized from something natural so it counted as natural, and that all psychedelics counted as natural. Lol

  5. The other thing that I should have included is that pharmaceuticals go through rigorous chemical trials, where as many other substances don't. 
    Also, just because the idea for a drug comes from a natural product generally they are followed by detailed exploration in the lab. Scientists alter the organic framework to make it cheap to make, soluable, etc. However, they have to keep specifics intact like the beta-lactam ring in penicillin. They generally get the ideas from the environment, but synthesize analogues to make a feasible candidate. 

  6. I often hear the argument that a "natural" "remedy" is being kept down because "you can't patent a natural product," and there for Big Pharma won't study it. It makes me curious how asprin and statin drugs ever got discovered.

  7. Here's another example that I use every single day:
    It is an insecticidal soil actinomycete that was discovered by a scientist on vacation in the Carribean, when he noticed that there were no sand fleas in a particular area.  It was developed by Dow into an insecticidal spray and is now used as a flea preventative for dogs.

  8. Hang on, though. Keep in mind that there are a zillion different "natural" remedies we could be talking about. One "natural" remedy I use is to take eat yogurt with live culture. Acidophilus is being studied for immunity and benefits to the digestive system. Would anyone consider yogurt to be potentially unsafe? Not really. Earl gray and green tea might also be beneficial and at normal ingestion levels are hardly considered controversial. 
    Many prescription drugs are merely symptom killers which do not address underlying disease. Not that I am at all anti traditional medicine, however until the Human Genome Project is used to determine individual reactions to drugs, we should not worship their safety, either. I tend to stay away from drugs under five years on the market that have been tested in real time. 
    Many herbal drugs are weak at best for Tx, but preventative diets and addressing the CAUSE of underlying disease can entail eating and drinking substances that provide stability.

    Really nice article to see on skepchik. Being a natural product chemist – who attempts to synthsise them in a lab as diving down to the bottom of the arctic gets a little annoying after a while! – this is a topic close to my heart.  
    With respect to "Actually, many pharmaceuticals are naturally derived" Jaqueline's comment is critical. The difference between a chemical compound that shows biological activity in a petri-dish and a drug that makes it to market are huge. "Natural" drugs i.e. unmodified compounds extracted from plants are likely to just be peed out or digested before they do anything useful!
    Natural vs. Synthetic is a great argument, especially with respect to Mr LSD. All chemicals are natural, all matter is natural, everything we make is made from things that came from the Universe – The Universe is NATURAL. Also, should the same chemical compound be synthesised in a lab and found in nature, it would be impossible to tell them apart.  They are the same thing – one is not better or worse because of its origin.
    And Luna, although some drugs do only treat symptoms, imagine how bearable (or essential) that must make life for sufferers of arthritis, or diabetes, or Parkinson's disease or………….

    1. This is what I try to tell people who get into the "natural vs. artificial" medicine debate with me. Every single medicine that exists is made entirely from things found on the earth, even chemicals synthesized in a lab had to be made from something. Where else are we going to get it? Even if we got it from outer space it would be natural. Where do you draw the line between "natural" and "artificial?" 

    2. I agree and as I said, I am not against these medications in any way. But is that the best we can do? What about doctors telling patients up front to take more of a role in prevention and diet / exercise change? People laugh this off but obviously once you get to the point where all you can do is to make your body stop doing its job, you're in trouble. No, not all diseases can be prevented in any way, but it's worth asking the question of why we have not, for example, figured out why the immune system overreacts to certain things instead of simply supressing histamines or giving allergy shots.

    3. Many times, just treating the symptoms is enough.  For example, the worst symptom of cholera is extreme diarrhea, which causes the sufferer to die of dehydration and starvation (since any food they can keep down doesn't stay in their GI tract long enough to provide any nutrition.)  Treating the symptom (the diarrhea) lets the patient live long enough that their own immune system can win.  Many other acute pathogenic illnesses are the same.

      1. That is certainly true for acute illnesses. The problem is when doctors toss these symptom-killers at chonic illnesses like diabetes, depression, autoimmune diseases, etc without even bothering to discuss with the patient the underlying cause or suggesting lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise, which at worst won't cause any difference.

  10.   The problem isn't with drugs specifically, it's how they're dispensed. Plenty of things can be treated via lifestyle changes I.E "natural" vs treating symptoms with prescription drugs and causing severe side effects.
    There are over-simplifications on both sides, however in general natural remedies sometimes can and do work, whilst causing fewer adverse effects. Prescription drugs are often needed but the process of dispensing them is often premature and reckless, in my opinion.

    1. Why would you think that natural remedies have fewer adverse effects? When I was prescribed a drug called Provigil my doctor gave me a cryptic warning to call 911 if I got a rash. I went home, got an ice cold Sobe Green Tea and looked it up on the Internet. It turns out that there is a rare side effect of the drug that causes all of your skin to fall off in sheets like you walked into the wrong room in a Cube movie.
      You know what else does that? Ginseng! They put that stuff in Sobe Green Tea. Talk about premature and reckless prescribing, they're putting this stuff in our food products! The only reason your herbs don't come with a list of warnings like prescription drugs do is because they aren't regulated. They frequently don't even contain the herbs they say they contain.
      Also, you should get a new doctor if they aren't addressing possible lifestyle changes. That stuff is a part of real medicine. Scam artists claim that as their own, but no, nutrition and exercise and the like are not "alternative" medicine.
      There are three differences between natural and artificial medicines. The dose is metered, the drug doesn't contain deadly chemicals you don't want, and somebody has actually studied the dangers and is required to tell you about them. That's it. If it seems like herbal drugs are safer, it may be that you are incorrectly assuming them to be placebos. Clearly people think that on some level, or they would be creeped out by the idea of unprescribed heart medicine in bread or erectile dysfunction medicine in bottled tea. While it is true that herbal medicines generally don't work for crap it's not true that they don't have side effects. We don't know much about what they are, but we do know that some herbal remedies can cause birth control and even HIV medicines to stop working. Oh, and sometimes they cause your immune system to strip your flesh off like someone was murdering you with a potato peeler.

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