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There are a lot of places you might think to look for a cure for cancer, but chances are tick spit isn't one of them. Yet that's where a hunch took Brazilian researchers recently. And what they found may just may be medicine's holy grail.
While studying the anti-coagulant properties of the saliva of Amblyomma cajennense, a.k.a. the South American tick, the Brazilian team stumbled across an unusual protein. Wondering if there might not be some curative potential to be had, they tested the substance on rats with cancer and beheld a most remarkable thing: The rats' tumors shrank. When treatments continued, they disappeared altogether and without any damage to healthy cells.
That's completely incredible. But it's also a perfect example of why we need to make sure we don't destroy the habitats that nature has given us. Because you never know what's going to wind up curing cancer or other diseases.
We're not doing such a great job of that right now. Instead of guarding natural treasures, we're selling them out to highest bidders and lowest purposes in an extinction crisis that most people don't even know is well underway. Our world's snowballing loss of biodiversity, an epic vanishing of species great and small that scientists liken to the cataclysmic disappearance of the dinosaurs, stands largely hidden in the shadows of other seemingly more urgent environmental dilemmas like global warming and toxic pollution. Yet from the bottom of the sea to the tops of the mountains, species unique to natural history are falling into oblivion and taking 3.5 billion years of evolution with them.
Some of these, like the dodo or the passenger pigeon, are poster children for ecological hubris and willful ignorance. Others, like the Cuban guettarda tree and the Louisiana vole, faded away all but unnoticed. Educated guesswork suggests that during the 20th century somewhere between 20,000 and two million species became extinct. The most reliable current estimates tell us that at present some 140,000 species are disappearing each and every year.
No one knows exactly how many plants and animals we're losing because no one really knows all that nature contains in the first place. We simply have no idea what's going missing from the great web of life as it tears and frays, and that's why those who have some small inkling understand that this is the crisis that deserves the Beringian cave lion's share of our ecological attention.
Many people, myself included, believe that all life forms are sacred in their way and that each and every one, from the most celebrated megafauna to the lowliest slime mold, have an inherent right to exist. With such an appreciation of life on Earth, in all its fantastic and marvelous forms, comes a profound moral and spiritual obligation to defend each living thing from the black hole of forever gone.
Still, if you need a more utilitarian rationale for going out of your way to preserve the black-footed ferret or the western prairie fringed orchid or any of the other countless species that are slipping away each hour of every day, look no further than the South American tick. It's not a creature that elicits anything close to sympathy. It is, in fact, a fairly creepy, blood-sucking, disease-spreading parasite that preys on human beings. And yet this tiny and ostensibly insignificant creature has quite possibly been hiding the answer to a question that our own species has long and most desperately sought. Who can say what else is out there waiting for us to hoist it into the light of discovery?
To learn more about the magnificent variety of life on Earth, I highly recommend reading anything by one of my personal heroes, the modern-day Thoreau and noted biodiversity sage Edward O. Wilson. In particular, his books The Diversity of Life, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life On Earth, and Biophilia will open your eyes to the unfathomable mysteries that surround us.
For more information about extinction, read the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's annual Red List (pdf) report, an enlightening examination of both the issues and the species involved in what's likely to someday be known as the Anthropocene Extinction.