Montana People - Gary Strobel

Microbiologist at Montana State University in Bozeman...

Looking for obscure plants with profound implications on humanity, Montana State University plant science professor, Gary Strobel, continues to carve a niche in history.  Using local folklore as well as intuition in collecting plants and searching for microorganisms, Strobel deciphers nature’s innate healing abilities. By finding antibacterial, antifungal, and other bioactive compounds found in plants, he fuses common wisdom with high-tech methodology. Strobel combs the globe from Montana to Madagascar discovering cures for mankind.

Crammed with artifacts from his travels to the remotest parts of the planet, Strobel’s office displays a stunning collection of didgeridoos. The brightly colored wooden tubes are the oldest musical instrument known to man. While working with the Australian Aborigines—representing the oldest uninterrupted culture on earth—Strobel picked up the ability to play this lengthy hollow branch, among other things. Sitting in a chair, Strobel reaches over and situates the five-foot piece of wood between his knees. His cheeks billow with air as he continuously inhales and exhales, making an unbroken vibrating tone, rather like a room full of chanting monks.


“I have about twenty of these,” Strobel says, replacing the didgeridoo. “This is one I made—it’s in the key of B.” 

In another corner an array of long arrows from the Upper Amazon line the wall. Digging into folklore and rooting out ancient plant life, Strobel learns much about the people he visits. But he also unveils the secrets to what Strobel believes can unlock life-changing discoveries.

The key are endophytes, bacterial and fungal microorganisms that live between the plant’s cells. They create compounds protecting the plant (and therefore their home) from disease and infection. These symbiotic microorganisms offer the plant protection while the plant gives the organism shelter and food. Strobel discovered that the same basic function these microorganisms perform in plants can be used in human medicines. With people becoming more and more resistant to traditional antibiotics, Strobel’s innovations in the medicinal field have altered the worldview of pharmaceuticals.  Drug researchers believe endophytes are a much gentler way to fight infection—since they occur naturally in trees and plants.

It all started decades ago, when Strobel nearly lost his job, his family and his reputation. 

“Something critical happened,” he says. In order to finance his research Strobel began to apply for grants. The budget he had was only around $2,000 annually. He’d been at MSU since 1963 working in plant biology.  “One day, in the 1970s, Dick Gray called from Minnesota. He said he would give me $150,000 to work on a cure for Dutch Elm Disease.” 

During this time, genetic engineering was just getting off the ground, although it was greatly misunderstood. (In 1968 James Watson wrote The Double Helix).

“We decided to genetically modify a bacterium that would get rid of the Dutch Elm fungus, which was killing the trees,” Strobel says, his voice soft but precise. At the time he’d been working with a bacterium he’d discovered in a wheat field near Glacier National Park.  “And we wanted to test it on a tree in the field.”

So they injected it into 14 elm trees. 

The Environmental Protection Agency had strict but hard to follow rules about introducing microorganisms formed by genetic engineering into the environment.  This “violation” made the front page of newspapers and magazines nationwide.  It wasn’t the fact that he’d actually found a cure, but the idea that he’d gone against the EPA regulations that seemed to grab the most headlines.

But it was also an act that nearly destroyed his career.

“I said, now is not the time to stop this type of science,” Strobel repeating what he said when testifying in front of Congress.  “And on September 4, 1987, I’d decided enough was enough. I went out and cut the trees down.” Which made Rolling Stone magazine, a clipping Strobel proudly displays. 

All through that time, Strobel didn’t miss a day of work. The university supported him and stood by him, although, his grant money dried up.

“I used my own money to do the research,” he says. Even though he’d gotten in hot water with his work on Dutch Elm Disease, he couldn’t stop thinking about it as a success. “We’d found antimycotics. And then I wanted to know if these organisms would kill human pathogens.”

And they did. 

“They were found effective against human yeast infection,” Strobel says, adding, “Most AIDS patients die from yeast infections.” 

That formula was licensed from MSU by Eli Lilly in the early 1990s.  

Although it was a tumultuous time, it was also the beginning of some fantastic discoveries, and for Strobel, it was the first step in an incredible journey. 

“Imagine—from a wheat field to a product being tested by one of the top pharmaceutical companies in the world,” he says, as though it had just happened yesterday.  “Hard to believe.”

Around the time the breakthrough of Taxol in yew trees was discovered to have an impact on breast cancer, Strobel found himself wondering about it as well. Strobel thought that it wasn’t so much the plant itself that was useful in fighting certain types of cancer, but the fungus that did the job—just like in his experiments with the Dutch Elms.

“So we imagined it might be possible—and that’s the thing in science—if the fungus found in the yew trees could be duplicated in the lab, and then we could make taxol rather than having to cut down all these trees.”

Within a year Strobel and his team found the endophyte in yew trees that produced Taxol.

“It caused people around the world to do similar things and it caused a revolution in drug discoveries,” Strobel says. “Now you sit back and the score is two—two bioactive important drugs and they’re both found in Montana.”

Which, for Strobel, only beckoned the question: What other breakthroughs were out there?

It’s pretty amazing to think about just how many hundreds of discoveries Strobel has made over the last twenty years—but he doesn’t just stumble onto them. Like the scientist that he is, he has three main criteria when seeking out new microorganisms. The first is to search in areas of high plant diversity.

“I know people thought I should go to Yellowstone, but I was looking for plant diversity and in Yellowstone, it’s just not very good,” Strobel says. “I was looking for things that might have biotechnical applications.” And although his discoveries started in Montana, they didn’t end there—his travels took him into the heart of remote rainforests and jungles.

The second thing he looks for are plants that have occupied the landscape, in the same area, for a long, long time. That led him to think about places like Gondwanaland—the hypothetical landmass broken up by plate tectonics—or in other words, South America, Africa, Antarctica, and Australia. 

He describes his thinking like this, “Imagine if you were sitting in one place for millions of years. You have food. You give shelter. The microbes are going to want to make an association with you.”

When Strobel visits these places he also speaks with inhabitants about which plants they use for burns and when someone gets sick or cut. And that leads to the third criteria—an anthropological connection to a locally-proven medicinal plant. Because it’s not always the plant itself that is beneficial but the microbes living in them, and that’s what Strobel is looking for.

On my first trip to Australia I met Reggie, and I asked him if someone got cut what plants would they use to stop the bleeding,” Strobel says, standing up to point out a framed drawing of Reggie on his wall. “And he showed me the snake vine. Sure enough we found 40 different streptomycetaceae from that one plant, and most of them make antibiotics.”

From a single strain they had nearly a hundred drug patents licensed for applications.

As testimony to his contributions to pharmacology the Smithsonian Institute keeps one of Strobel’s little red hats he uses in the field—both to wear and to collect samples—in their treasury of “esteemed items.”

In a documentary Montana State University made about Strobel and his work, there is footage of him in the Upper Amazon Basin, talking with a local woman who suffered with malaria five years before. He asked her about her symptoms and she told him she’d used vegetables to cure herself. She led him to the “Devil’s Tree,” a large plant used to treat diarrhea. 

“We hoped to find endophytes that would cure malaria,” Strobel said in the film. 

Strobel tells a story about when he was in the field collecting samples. When he returned he’d placed all these samples in individual containers and covered each one with plastic wrap, then sealed the box. After two weeks the cultures growing on the plates were transferred to fresh plates. All the samples had died—all except one. What was it about that one plant’s ability to kill the fungus and bacterium in those other samples?

“From that we’d found a microbial gas,” Strobel says. “We are now testing it to see if it can get into the lungs and cure tuberculosis. Now that’s real aromatherapy.”

Just down the hallway from his office is the lab where Strobel and his students test the samples he collects.  As he pulls open the lab door, papered with journal covers which feature Strobel’s work, a wave of stringent odors hits hard, like a second gate. Piles of Petri dishes tower on counters and in corners. 

“They found this one in Costa Rica.” Strobel holds up a colorful circular dish. “It has an immunosuppressant compound—volutellin A—and it isn’t toxic at all but it’s just as effective as some of the more immunosuppressive but toxic drugs being used.”

Another Petri dish is growing an antimalarial compound. The fungi look topographical, some are brown, others pink. Some are mere dots and others have spawned thousands of spores. The shapes and patterns are as diverse as the rich landscape from which they were taken.  Strobel opens the lid on one and a fruity odor is emitted. “That’s the one that kills tuberculosis,” he says and quickly replaces the lid. 

It’s just one of the many miracles Strobel and his team developed.  It is Strobel’s wish that the places where these microorganisms are found will soon reap some financial rewards associated with his work. In Australia, for example, the money from one of the drugs found from the plants Strobel collected there will be used to build a school. It is his utmost desire to help the indigenous people live in a way that will support these biologically rich places and enable them to do what Strobel has done for themselves.

“I’m pushing 70 and I’m not done yet,” he says, getting ready for another trip to the Amazon and Borneo. “There’s an excitement that comes everyday I’m in the lab.” 

~ Michele Corriel lives and writes in the Gallatin Valley, where she freelances for regional and national magazines. 


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