The Matrix Energy Mine No. 1 in eastern Kentucky stretches 7 miles to its deepest point. Tiny cars creak along tracks laid on the ground in the bowels of the operation, opened in 2004, and miners here collect 4,500 tons of coal each day.
But Jon Thorson, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Kentucky and director at the Center for Pharmaceutical Research and Innovation, isn’t all that interested in fossilized carbon. He believes the true value to be found in the mine lies in the soil and rocks. Thorson is digging for blockbuster drugs.
Natural medicine is often associated with ancient civilizations or bogus alternative treatments endorsed by celebrities. However, unique compounds in plants, soil and the sea have played a major role in modern treatments for conditions ranging from bacterial infections and malaria to high cholesterol and cancer. According to one study, as much as 50 percent of drug compounds on the market have their origins or are structurally based upon some type of natural product.
And there’s so much more still to be uncovered. According to some research, only about 1 percent of bacterial and 5 percent of fungal species are known, which means it’s plausible that there’s something natural for everything that ails us.
Thorson says Kentucky’s Appalachian region is a good place to start looking. With more than 6,300 species, the area is the largest biodiverse “hot spot” in the U.S. Globally, it’s rivaled only by China in terms of its forest diversity. “You could spend the rest of your life [here] just looking for organisms,” he says.
Scientists like Thorson who go out into the natural world with hopes of identifying the next great cure usually head to locations where they might find “extremophiles”—organisms that thrive in extreme environments uninhabitable for most living things, because of, say, high pressure or high temperature. These harsh environments—like the bottom of the Matrix mine—are also often devoid of natural light and have a limited amount of nutrients to support life.
As a result, the extremophiles (or “exotic microorganisms,” as Thorson calls them) that live there need to develop certain traits to ensure survival. And by figuring out the naturally produced chemicals that give the extremophiles their extreme traits, we can sometimes harness those characteristics and put them to use for human good.
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