It’s time we start looking deeper
Since the dawn of civilization, plants have been the benefactors of human life. We use their fruits for food, their fibers for clothes, and their bodies for shelter. Virtually nothing could survive long without a plant nearby, including plants themselves. As Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird wrote in their seminal book on the plant kingdom, The Secret Life of Plants, day and night, from crib to coffin, “The true matrix of human life is the greensward covering of mother earth.”
Some of the greatest advances in human history have come from unleashing the capabilities of the plant kingdom. The ancient Egyptians and Mesoamericans developed agriculture to feed early civilizations. Advances in food, materials, and medicine have largely come from plants. Two thirds of small-molecule medicines were originally derived from natural compounds found in plants, bacteria, and fungi. The food writer Michael Pollan boiled down his recipe for a healthy modern life to a humble appreciation of things that grow from the soil: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
That much we know. And there is still much we don’t. We’re on the cusp of another great leap into the deeper understanding of plants. Not just that we can eat them (and should), but also that they contain hidden universes of active compounds that improve our health and vitality.
The arrival of new “superfoods” is often the result of uncovering plant bioactives. Plants produce these small molecules to grow and protect themselves against pathogens or predators. Because humans evolved alongside plants, they support our health in similar ways, with anti-inflammatory, anti-aging, cardioprotective, neuroprotective, and other therapeutic activities. Catechins in green tea support our immunity. Antioxidants in blueberries mitigate oxidative stress on our cells. The resveratrol in red wine promotes heart health and longevity.
What’s incredible about bioactives is that we’ve only begun to understand them. The scientific community refers to these small molecules as the “dark matter” of the plant kingdom because we’ve mapped less than one percent of them. The opportunity to illuminate them is one of the great frontiers of science and understanding how plants impact our biology will have breakthrough implications for the food, natural products, and medicines in our daily lives.
At Brightseed, we are pioneering this leap into the science of nature. We built an artificial intelligence called Forager® that is exploring the plant kingdom at this deep, molecular level. Much like how Google is indexing the world’s information, Forager® is indexing the world’s plants to identify our biological connections to the natural world. Forager®’s first discovery is a powerful bioactive hidden inside over 80 plants that regulate the body’s metabolic health. This compound has existed on earth for millennia and will be deployed to help over two billion people worldwide who have or are at risk of chronic metabolic conditions including diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and cardiovascular disease.
The 1918 flu pandemic led to the formation of modern medicine. We now are at a similar inflection point and in the post-COVID era, plants will play a critical role in improving our resilience. The sooner we illuminate and activate the connections between plants and people, the sooner we can enable a healthier future. Nature has the answers, we just need to look.
Jim Flatt is the co-founder and CEO of Brightseed. He is a chemical and biochemical engineer and a longtime leader in biosciences R&D.