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Panama Rises

The Central American nation, now celebrating its centennial, has come into its own since the United States ceded control of its vital waterway

A biologist named Stephen Hubbell, who worked on Barro Colorado in the mid-1980s, began a study of the plants that leaf-cutter ants selected—and did not select—for their farming needs. Hubbell enlisted a young biologist named Jerome Howard and a chemist named David Wiemer in the work, which was conducted partly on Barro Colorado and partly in Costa Rica.

They found that among the trees leaf-cutter ants avoided was one called Hymenaea courbaril. The team performed a series of tests on extracts from its leaves, observing which extracts the ants avoided. Eventually, they isolated some 70 compounds with potential antifungal applications, though none, thus far, has proved commercially viable.

The lab work that led to the discovery of these compounds was carried out at the University of Iowa, not in Panama. Panama’s challenge in the post-American era is to make certain that intellectual products from its rain forests create jobs and wealth for Panamanians.

The country now participates in a program called International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG). Its goal is to develop new drugs and pharmaceuticals from molecular compounds discovered in Panamanian rain forests, doing the research—from specimen gathering to lab analysis—in Panama. Some of that work is done in what was an American military base—FortClayton. The base is now known as Ciudad del Saber, the City of Knowledge, and several of its old buildings have been refurbished as laboratories, where researchers are looking for compounds to use against HIV and tropical diseases.

There are promising signs. Using a biological assay technique developed in Panama, an ICBG researcher in Puerto Rico recently reported isolating compounds in the Caribbean gorgonian coral that are active against the parasites that cause malaria.

It makes for an interesting neighborhood. Ciudad del Saber is very near the canal and the Miraflores Locks. In a short time, it’s possible to walk from what may be a source of future marvels to a source of marvel in 1914.

I made that walk when I watched the Falstaff on its canal transit. The canal may no longer be as strategically vital as it was when it first opened. There are vessels, both naval and commercial, that are too big for its locks, and Panama will have to decide soon whether to try to expand the canal with a new, much larger set of locks. Expansion could be fraught with unforeseen consequences, both to the country’s treasury and to its environment. But even in its present form, the canal is still an impressive testament to the politicians who conceived it, to the engineers and laborers who built it, and to the Panamanians who run it today.

The Falstaff spent 13 minutes rising 27 feet in the lock. A bell rang. Gates at the far end of the lock swung open. The water under her fantail began to froth as its propeller churned. Slowly, the ship moved out toward the Atlantic. She was bound for Brunswick, Georgia. She was scheduled to arrive in four days.

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