“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.”