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History and myth
Called "chotachand" in Hindi, the snakeroot plant is the source of a local Indian myth. This ancient Hindu legend claims that when a mongoose was about to engage in combat with a cobra, the mongoose would feed on the roots of the snakeroot plant. Then, if bitten during the battle, the mongoose would be unaffected by the cobra's venom. The snakeroot plant thus became known to the locals as a potent antidote for snakebites. If this fable is true, the use of this plant can serve as an example of "zoopharmacognosy," a term coined in 1992 to describe the study of how animals use and recognize medicinal plants. The term originates from the Greek roots zoo -, "animal"; pharma-, "drug or poison," and -cognosy, "to recognize."
The snakeroot plant is scientifically known as Rauvolfia serpentina. It belongs to the Apocynaceae, a family of dicots that is pantropic in distribution, with only a few representatives in temperate zones. Some species within Apocynaceae have buttressed roots and are found in the tropical rain forests of India and Malaya. However, most species, such as Rauvolfia, are evergreen shrubs and trees. They tend to have simple, entire leaves, and most of their plant parts contain a milky latex. Some species have solitary flowers, while others have raceme, or most commonly, cyme inflorescences. (An inflorescence is a group of flowers attached to a common axis.) The flowers are bisexual (having both male and female reproductive organs) and are often showy and fragrant.
In addition to its use as an antidote for snakebites, R. serpentina was often employed to treat anxiety, insomnia, and insanity. In fact, in parts of India, R. serpentina was known as "pagal-ka-dawa," which translates to "the insanity cure." Other local cultures used the plant as a relaxant and as a tranquilizer to put children to sleep for the night.
In 1949, the alkaloid reserpine was isolated and identified from the roots of Rauvolfia. Alkaloids are a major class of natural products that have a physiological effect in other organisms. They characteristically contain carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and in many cases, oxygen. Because of their potent pharmacological effects, alkaloids are the basis for many pharmaceuticals. Reserpine is considered a sympathomimetic agent, one that targets the sympathetic nervous system. Reserpine has been found to lower blood pressure in remarkably low oral doses. CIBA, a pharmaceutical company based in Switzerland, marketed reserpine under the trade name Serpasil as the first major drug to treat hypertension. (In 1996, CIBA combined with Sandoz Pharmaceuticals, another Swiss company, and now exists under the new name Novartis.)
Although reserpine has been successfully synthesized, natural versions are less expensive and therefore more desirable. As a result, high-volume collection of R. serpentina is depleting the plant as a natural resource. A protocol for mass artificial propagation of R. serpentina has been proposed by Jahangirnagar University in Bangladesh. Cell tissue culture is a technique whereby a mass of undifferentiated cells called a "callus" is maintained indefinitely on an artificial medium.