One of the most potent anti-malarial chemicals known to science has been found in the Amazon rainforest, unnoticed by the indigenous people who often fall victim to the disease.
University researchers identified an antibiotic peptide complex called coronamycin being produced by fungus-like bacteria growing inside a little-known tree-hugging vine.
Initial tests suggested that, molecule-for-molecule, coronamycin was more effective against the malaria parasite than chloroquin, the main anti-malarial agent that is becoming increasingly obsolete as the parasite develops resistance against it.
The material was collected by Gary Strobel, professor of plant sciences at Montana State University in the US, during a "fishing trip" to investigate fungi and bacteria growing in an area of high biodiversity in the upper reaches of the Amazon in Peru.
Among the plants he brought back for analysis was a vine from the monstera genus, inside which he found a streptomyces bacterium. Laboratory tests on the cocktail of chemicals given off by the bacteria, carried out by microbiologist James Jensen at Brigham Young University in the US, revealed that tiny doses of coronamycin prevented the malaria parasite from growing within human blood cells - without harming the living material.
The possibility that coronamycin might also be effective against transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, which include BSE and CJD, is to be explored, with a sample sent to the laboratory of Nobel laureate Stanley Prusiner at the University of California for testing.
Malaria kills 2.7 million people every year, most of them children. The parasites that cause it are carried by mosquitoes and they infect red blood cells and the liver.
But drug companies have not invested much in developing vaccines and treatments as the disease is rare in developed countries.
Professor Strobel said bacteria and fungi living within plants represented a largely untapped resource of chemicals that could be used to fight disease. He added that it was understandable that the indigenous people in the Peruvian rainforest had not utilised the anti-malarial chemical.
"It may be that the streptomyces is not present in the plant in sufficient quantities to be useful to the indigenous people and the peptide itself would be broken down if taken orally," he said.
The research has been supported by the biotech firm Novozymes and a report on the findings will appear in the journal Microbiology .