Biosphere Daily Earth Science Environment Repost

The Amazon Rainforest pharmacy

Here are two numbers to keep in mind: 80,000 and 25. The minimum number of plant species in the Amazon Rainforest is 80,000, and about 25 percent of all drugs come from Amazon Rainforest plants. Cancer researchers know that the Amazon Rainforest contains 70 percent of the known plants with anti-cancer properties. Also, these plants are unique to the Amazon region. So the abundance of medicinal plants is why the Amazon ecosystem is called the world’s rainforest pharmacy.

But the Amazon Rainforest is no exception to a modern onslaught on the world’s rainforest. These tropical rainforests once covered 14 percent of the globe. However, today the remaining rainforests cover only six percent of the planet. Human activities and deforestation are the culprits for the shrinking rainforests of the world. 

Rainforests provide some of the world’s most diverse ecosystems in terms of species abundance. But, a conservative estimate of species loss in these ecosystems is 137 species of plants and animals lost each day. Sadly, detailed investigations of the medicinal properties of rainforest plants include only about one percent of the plant species in the world’s rainforest. Thus potential lifesaving drugs are disappearing each day.

The Amazon

Cradled within the Amazon basin is the largest rainforest in the world. At close to 8 million square kilometers, this forest is equal in size to the lower 48 states in the USA. About ten percent of all the species on earth call the Amazon home. But, deforestation shrinks the rainforest each year, and approximately 15 to 20 percent of the rain forest ecosystem has been lost. Brazil accounts for about 60 percent of the Amazon Rainforest, but the country accounts for approximately 75 percent of the current deforestation.

Species loss in the Amazon often translates to species extinction. This correlation reflects the fact that 75 percent of the plant species found in the Amazon are unique and exist nowhere else on the planet. Their loss is a total loss, and any medicinal secrets they hold, disappear with them from this rainforest pharmacy.

The Amazon Rainforest is so big that it generates its own weather systems. Evaporation in some areas provides the moisture for rainfall in others. As the rainforest shrinks, it will eventually lose its ability to cycle moisture. Some studies predict that this effect takes hold when approximately 25 percent of the forest disappears.

The cures

Drugs produced by the Amazon Rainforest pharmacy often depend on plants that are unique to the region. When those species disappear, then the cures disappear also. More unnerving is the realization that thousands of plant species are disappearing annually before researchers even investigate their medicinal potential.  

The Amazon Rainforest gives us drugs to treat cancer and fight aids. The first treatments for warding off malaria came from the Amazon in the form of quinine. The pau d’arco plant has a long history of human use dating back to pre-Inca civilizations. The plant provides an anti-fungal, anti-microbial, anti-viral, anti-tumorous, anti-leukemic, and anti-inflammatory drug

Humanity has barely scratched the surface of the medicinal power from Amazon plants. But the prize may be slipping away from us before we know it even exists.


Species loss: rate of change matters – Also:

King Julien’s Disappearing Madagascar Rainforest – Also:


Nature’s pharmacy: The remarkable plants of the Amazon rainforest – and what they may cure – Also:

The world biggest pharmacy? The rainforest!(By Jennifer Huizen; Animalogic) – Also:

The Amazon Basin  Forest (Source: Yale Global Forest Atlas) – Also:


Feature image: Flowers of Pau d arco tree or purple Ipe from the family Bignoniaceae, genus Tabebuia possibly T. impetiginosa  (Modified) – By CostaPPPR – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.