Encyclopaedia corner: pando trees and gin & tonic

What's the world's largest organism? How did gin & tonic change the world? Stories from the living world...
28 July 2020

Interview with 

Adam Murphy, The Naked Scientists


Aspen trees in Colorado.


Phil Sansom heard some final stories from encyclopaedia corner, as Adam Murphy covered the Living World...

Phil - Adam over in encyclopaedia corner - before you give us our lovely final scores, have you got any lovely facts for us about animals or plants?

Adam - I do indeed. We had one of those questions there, that the blue whale is the largest animal to ever live. But I'm going to ask you a question, because you've asked so many questions...

Phil - Oh no!

Adam - What is the largest organism that is alive today?

Phil - Now I've heard about an enormous colony of fungi that is actually technically one organism. Is it that?

Adam - That is on the list, but it is beaten out by something called pando, which is Latin for 'I spread out'. It's a big colony of quaking aspen trees that all have the same root system. And we've checked, and they all come from the same roots, and genetically they're the same tree. It weighs 6 million kilograms.

Phil - So are you saying that what looks like a forest above ground, actually underground is like how a plant will bud off from another; It's actually one interconnected thing that's got these trees coming out of the ground connected by roots.

Adam - That's exactly it. If you were to walk through it, you'd see all these trees with this nice silver bark, and they've all got yellowy leaves a lot of the time. But once you go underground, the root system is all the same, and genetically each one of those trees is the same tree.

Phil - Where can I go see this?

Adam - In the Western edge of the Colorado plateau in south-central Utah.

Phil - I love it. More living world facts, please.

Adam - Right! One of the questions there was about gin and tonics and how they can fight malaria. Well it's sort of an interesting story, and it might be the most important cocktail in human history - a G&T. Because as you said, tonic water contains quinine, which is an antimalarial drug. This has been known for centuries - where it comes from in Peru it's part of a bark called the cinchona tree, which was found by the Quechua people. And in the 1850s, we managed to extract from that bark and bring it to the Western world, and mixed it into tonic water. But tonic water, even today, doesn't have much quinine in it anymore, and it still tastes pretty bitter. So can you imagine that bitter taste in tonic water times 10?

Phil - So when they were doing this, were they doing it for the pure appreciation of the bark of this tree? Or was there some knowledge that it could help against something like malaria?

Adam - There was knowledge that it could help against malaria. There were stories of Jesuit monks being  shaky and feverish and falling into puddles at the base of cinchona trees, and then waking up better. That probably didn't happen, but it's the same thing that it was Jesuit monks in the Western world who first figured out it could do this. The tribe who lived there knew! They were well up on things. But what happened was this stuff tasted so foul, especially to British soldiers when they went to Africa, that they had to mix it with something. And soldiers often got a ration of gin as well. So one plus the other means you could get an antimalarial that you could drink in a cocktail. And the thing about it was until then, Africa was called 'the white man's grave' because colonists from Europe kept going to Africa and kept dying of malaria. But suddenly they didn't anymore because they had a defense. So it allowed for the colonisation of Africa, and changed the face of the world as we know it - and still has impact.

Phil - It's quite something. People like me I think will be thinking of this drug that's similar to the quinine in tonic water, but that's being touted on and off as a coronavirus treatment. Is that the same thing or is that something slightly different?

Adam - So it's the same family of drugs. It's hydroxychloroquine - that 'quin' comes from quinine, but it has far fewer side effects, which is why we use it now. And we've been using it since roughly about World War Two. That's why nowadays tonic water doesn't have that much quinine in it. So if you're going abroad, don't use gin and tonics as an antimalarial; go to your doctor and get them to give you one.

Phil - They don't advertise their malaria treating effects now, I assume - they're going for taste.

Adam - Yeah, that's the plan.


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