DNA evidence finds Chinese medicine guilty…

…of killing endangered animals. Or at least Nature hypes up enough evidence to put Chinese medicine on trial:

“There’s absolutely no honesty in the labelling of these products. What they declare is completely at odds with what’s in there,” says Mike Bunce, a geneticist at Murdoch University near Perth, Australia, who led the study. The results are published today in PLoS Genetics.

Bunce’s team sequenced DNA from 15 traditional Chinese medicine preparations that had been seized by Australian customs, including powders, tablets and teas….
They identified 68 families of plants, including a poisonous herb called Ephedra and the woody vine Aristolochia. Sometimes known as birthwort, Aristolochia contains aristolochic acid, which can cause kidney and liver damage and bladder cancer. Medicinal use of the herb probably explains high rates of bladder cancer in Taiwan, according to a paper published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers also found DNA from eight genera of vertebrate animals. Genetic material from the critically endangered Saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) was present in one powder; and boxes marked as bear-bile powder or decorated with the outline of a bear contained traces of DNA from the Asian black bear (Ursus thibetanus), which is classed as vulnerable.

The “poisonous” labeling is irksome – Ephedra is where ephedrine comes from. It’s poisonous because it raises your heart rate… which is what it’s supposed to do, in some medical applications. It also makes your nasal and bronchial passages expand, which is why it’s closely related to pseudoephedrine, the key ingredient in Sudafed. (The comments under the Nature article cover that labeling problem exhaustively.)

But in general, it’s not so nice to discover your pills have bits of endangered antelopes in ’em.