Was Lou Gehrig’s ALS Caused by Tap Water? - Miller-McCune
A toxic molecule found in pond scum may trigger neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS and Parkinson’s. Could a group of scientists, led by a botanist, hold the key to a cure?
Rudyard Kipling called it “Hell’s Half Acre,” a geothermal wonderland where people could fall through the Earth’s thin crust or be poached by steamy hot springs and geysers. Most visitors to Yellowstone National Park’s Midway Geyser Basin stroll the wooden boardwalks, but a few hike a short, steep side trail that reveals a bird’s-eye view of the entire valley, including Grand Prismatic Spring, which can be fully appreciated only from above. Mustard-yellow and vibrant-orange mats spread like tentacles from the turquoise pool. “Not even the most talented artist could imagine something as beautiful as that,” muses Sandra Banack, a biologist who studies cyanobacteria, the microbes that create the colorful mats — and that hold a toxic secret.
Banack works as senior scientist at the Institute for EthnoMedicine in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, alongside the institute’s founder, Paul Cox, a botanist and conservationist. Cox’s long list of achievements includes working to preserve Samoan rain forests, for which he was awarded the 1997 Goldman Environmental Prize, and discovering one of the few compounds active against HIV, prostratin, from the Samoan mamala tree. In the early 2000s — when he directed the National Tropical Botanical Gardens in Hawaii and Florida and Banack was a biology professor at California State University, Fullerton — the two made a series of discoveries that led to the founding of the institute.
What started as a study of the island of Guam’s fruit bats and cycads, ancient seed-bearing plants that resemble palms, led to a startling hypothesis: Could cyanobacteria cause neurodegenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s?