Ronsted Lab - NHM Denmark

Natural History Museum of Denmark

The Quest for Cinchona - A Phylogenetic Tale

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The history of the Quest for Cinchona bark
The quest for Cinchona or Jesuits´ bark for the treatment of malaria is one of the most exciting tales in human history. Cinchona bark is probably the one remedy that has saved more lives and relieved more human suffering than any other remedy in history. Despite its importance, the discovery of Cinchona bark in Peru in the early part of the 17th century is surrounded by unreliable reports, imperial history, and botanical confusion. Plant hunters brought back seeds that were foundations of plantations by the British Empire, but seeds of a more productive variety came into the hands of the Dutch who soon took over the world market.

Outstanding puzzles
Imperial powers and their plant hunters were facing huge challenges in their quest for Cinchona. Cinchona trees were growing in little explored and almost inaccessible areas of the Northern and Central Andes. Botanical confusion and great variety in the quantity and composition of about 30 different Cinchona alkaloids between species and populations from different areas and habitats further complicated the search for the highest quality of Cinchona bark. On this background, we hypothesize that the early plant hunters might never have found the highest producing variety or the one with the optimal composition of active alkaloids. A further hypothesis is that the quest for Cinchona would have progressed differently if researchers had been able to take advantage of what we know today about the plants, their alkaloids, and evolution in a systematic way. To test this, we will use a phylogenetic approach to revisit the quest for Cinchona.

Cinchona Project Team
Nina Rønsted (PI) and Carla Maldonado, Natural History Museum of Denmark
Alexandre Antonelli and Claes Persson, University of Gothenburg, Sweden
Steen Honoré Hansen and Claus Cornett, Dept. Analytical Biosciences, University of Copenhagen
Rasmus Dahlberg, Denmark

The Cinchona project is funded by the