If You're Looking for New Drugs, Follow the Bright Bugs

By Andrew Moseman | July 9, 2008 2:40 pm

Tiger beetles’ color warns predators that they taste bad Seeking out new chemicals that could help scientists develop new medicines and drugs might not be so hard after all—maybe we just need to look for bright colors.

When insects like ladybugs, tiger moths and many others don brilliant hues, they’re saying, “Don’t eat me—I’m full of toxins and taste terrible.” The insects have to get those chemicals from somewhere, and the mostly likely candidates are the plants they live and feed upon. Scientists from the Smithsonian’s Tropical Research Institute in Panama say that these plants, with their weird cocktails of toxins, could be best the best sources of new drugs for humans, if we could only find them.


To see whether brightly-colored insects could be a reliable identifier, the researchers checked what bugs lived on two different kinds plants—first, plants that we already know provide chemicals that are beneficial to humans because they combat breast cancer and parasites associated with malaria, and second, plants not known to have any particular medicinal benefit. While plain-colored insects lived fairly evenly on both, researchers found bright bugs much more commonly on the beneficial plants.

So drug-seekers can follow the bugs—provided we don’t completely destroy their habitats.

Image: iStockphoto

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