American ethnobotanist invites students to explore nature’s curiosity cabinet


Paul A. Cox, an American ethnobotanist and former professor and dean at BYU, encouraged students to be reverent toward the earth during his forum address on Oct. 25.

While working at BYU, Cox said he received a letter signed by King Carl XVI Gustav, giving him an opportunity to be appointed to a chair named in the King’s honor.

Cox and his family moved to Uppsala, Sweden where they visited the Royal Palace in Stockholm to give an inaugural lecture for the King and Queen.

“I was able to visit other historic castles and gardens throughout Sweden,” Cox said. However, at Skoklosters Castle, in the attic, Cox “spied a large, but dusty ornate wardrobe” called a “‘curiosity cabinet’ housing special collections of natural history”.

Cox said curiosity cabinets were “the rage among 17th century monarchs and aristocrats” and were compact versions of small rooms “containing natural history specimens, books and paintings.”

At the top of the Skoklosters Castle’s wardrobe, Cox found cabinets filled with “dried plants, seashells and a multitude of other natural curiosities.”

“Our planet resembles a gigantic curiosity cabinet, with wonders to be found in every nook and cranny,” Cox said. “I would like to explore with you a few items from nature’s curiosity cabinet. Some of them may also provide solutions to our modern problems.”

Paul Cox referenced some of nature’s curiosities such as Stromatolites, Cycad trees, violets, and Samoan rainforest trees. Many of these curiosities can be used to solve modern problems. (Andrea Zapata Mejia)

Fossils of Stromatolites

Cox said Stromatolites are “concentric accretions made over thousands of years by cyanobacteria.” Through photosynthesis, the microscopic organisms captured electrons in sea water while releasing molecular oxygen. This process yielded equivalent to one percent of current atmospheric levels, which was enough to allow life to survive at the surface of the ocean. Plant life in the oceans later increased oxygen to 10 percent for life to survive on land.

Cyanobacteria is “the moderator of the earth’s atmosphere, and the current largest carbon sink in the world,” Cox said. Though receiving little recognition for their service, their production of oxygen has been crucial.

Referencing 1 Nephi 16:29, Cox said “And thus we see that by small means the Lord can bring about great things.”

Cycad tree from the island of Guam in the Pacific

The cycad tree provides another link to cyanobacteria formed in stromatolites.

While searching for the cause of a paralytic disease which took the lives of many residents of villages in Guam, Cox said they found cyanobacteria in the roots of a cycad tree. These cyanobacterias produce a chronic neurotoxin called BMAA. They found cyanobacteria can photosynthesize and produce a nitrogen rich toxin, contaminating food made from cycad seed flour. Furthermore, those who ate flying foxes, which forage on cycad seeds, received a high dose of BMAA.

“Outside of Guam, we are not immune to BMAA exposure. Agricultural runoffs and improperly treated sewage flowing into rivers, lakes, and estuaries can trigger explosions in cyanobacterial populations,” Cox said. Dr. Elijah Stommel found those who live near sources of water with cyanobacterial blooms have a 25 percent increased risk of ALS.

Cox and teams around the world are currently working on a commercial immunoassay to inexpensively test water for BMAA and possible treatments for ALS and Mild Cognitive Impairment.

Dried sample of violets

Cox said “These small flowers may actually hold the key to treating glioblastoma, a lethal form of brain cancer.”

Bark of a small Samoan rainforest tree

The bark is used by healers in Samoa to treat hepatitis, Cox said. With colleagues at the US National Cancer Institute, Cox analyzed the bark of Homalanthus nutans, “discovering prostratin, a promising drug candidate for the treatment of HIV/AIDS.”

When the Samoan government required the village to build an elementary school, the only option to pay for the construction was from loggers to cut down the entire rainforest. With friends, family, students and former missionaries, Cox said he was able to return to Samoa with the needed funds to build a school.

Other requests soon came as villagers were being forced to choose between protecting their rainforest or building schools for their children. Seacology, a non-profit organization, was created to build schools, medical clinics, and solar electrification schemes and water supplies. Seacology has now completed 386 different island projects in 69 countries, concerning 1.5 million acres of rainforest and coral reef, Cox said.

Mangrove seeds

Cox said, “Mangroves are trees with stilt roots that grow in saltwater along the coastlines of many islands.” Mangroves sequester more carbon per gram dry weight than other terrestrial vegetations. Conserving mangroves can play an important role in reducing atmospheric carbon levels.

What are some concrete steps that students can take to show reverence for the earth? Cox gave three suggestions.

First, Cox said to draw closer to the earth by taking time to view spectacular sunsets, or even get up early to see the sunrise. Make your own curiosity cabinet and place colorful fall leaves, beautiful seashells and rocks or add a sketch that you made about the earth.

“Second, you can take a bold stand against climate change by planting and caring for a tree or even just a houseplant,” Cox continued.

Third, Cox said to support National Parks, National Forests, and local preserves.

“The vastness of the universe, the beauty of the creation that surrounds us, evidences to my mind the handiwork of a loving Creator,” Cox said. “I believe, as a result, we have a great responsibility to care for the creation, and to protect it.”

Cox testified if we explore Nature’s Curiosity Cabinet, we can increase our sense of wonder and discover truths that can help solve serious world problems.

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