This botanical superhero has saved the lives of millions of people around the world. The leaves of the plant sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua, seen here using an electron microscope) are covered with glandular hairs, known as trichomes, which secrete artemisenin – the most effective drug for treating malaria. Malaria kills over half a million people (mainly children) each year and affects millions more. It’s caused by a parasite that is spread via mosquito bites. Artemisenin, first identified by screening Chinese traditional medicines, rapidly clears the parasite from the body. Researchers worldwide are focussed on establishing cheaper and more reliable sources of the drug. Selective breeding is helping to create plant varieties with higher yields, and some genes involved in artemisenin synthesis have been spliced into yeast. Although the parasite is beginning to evolve artemisenin resistance, this plant is still a lifeline for millions.
Written by Sarah McLusky
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