The Use of Phylogeny to Interpret Cross-Cultural Patterns in Plant Use and Guide Medicinal Plant Discovery: An Example from Pterocarpus LeguminosaeReport as inadecuate

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The study of traditional knowledge of medicinal plants has led to discoveries that have helped combat diseases and improve healthcare. However, the development of quantitative measures that can assist our quest for new medicinal plants has not greatly advanced in recent years. Phylogenetic tools have entered many scientific fields in the last two decades to provide explanatory power, but have been overlooked in ethnomedicinal studies. Several studies show that medicinal properties are not randomly distributed in plant phylogenies, suggesting that phylogeny shapes ethnobotanical use. Nevertheless, empirical studies that explicitly combine ethnobotanical and phylogenetic information are scarce.

Methodology-Principal Findings

In this study, we borrowed tools from community ecology phylogenetics to quantify significance of phylogenetic signal in medicinal properties in plants and identify nodes on phylogenies with high bioscreening potential. To do this, we produced an ethnomedicinal review from extensive literature research and a multi-locus phylogenetic hypothesis for the pantropical genus Pterocarpus Leguminosae: Papilionoideae. We demonstrate that species used to treat a certain conditions, such as malaria, are significantly phylogenetically clumped and we highlight nodes in the phylogeny that are significantly overabundant in species used to treat certain conditions. These cross-cultural patterns in ethnomedicinal usage in Pterocarpus are interpreted in the light of phylogenetic relationships.


This study provides techniques that enable the application of phylogenies in bioscreening, but also sheds light on the processes that shape cross-cultural ethnomedicinal patterns. This community phylogenetic approach demonstrates that similar ethnobotanical uses can arise in parallel in different areas where related plants are available. With a vast amount of ethnomedicinal and phylogenetic information available, we predict that this field, after further refinement of the techniques, will expand into similar research areas, such as pest management or the search for bioactive plant-based compounds.

Author: C. Haris Saslis-Lagoudakis , Bente B. Klitgaard, Félix Forest, Louise Francis, Vincent Savolainen, Elizabeth M. Williamson, Juli



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