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Misclassified for centuries, medicinal leeches found to be 3 distinct species

Genetic research has revealed that commercially available medicinal leeches used around the world in biomedical research and postoperative care have been misclassified for centuries. Until now, the leeches were assumed to be the species Hirudo medicinalis, but new research reveals they are actually a closely related but genetically distinct species, Hirudo verbana.

The study also shows that wild European medicinal leeches are at least three distinct species, not one. The results appear in the April 10, 2007, online version of the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

"This raises the tantalizing prospect of three times the number of anticoagulants, and three times as many biomedically important developments in areas like protease inhibitors," said Mark Siddall of the American Museum of Natural History, who led the research team. "However, it will also require a better effort to conserve these much-maligned animals, in a way that takes into account their impressive diversity."

While Hirudo medicinalis was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2004, for use as a prescription medical device that helps restore blood flow following cosmetic and reconstructive surgery, Hirudo verbana has not been approved by the FDA and has no special conservation status.

"This study is a great example of why the field of taxonomy [the science of classification of organisms] is so important," said Patrick Herendeen, program director in the National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Environmental Biology, which funded the research. "Taxonomists have been studying the diversity of life on Earth for hundreds of years. In this case, the discovery of previously unknown species diversity has very significant legal and commercial implications."

Since the time of Hippocrates and long before Carolus Linnaeus first described Hirudo medicinalis in 1758, medicinal leeches have been used in a variety of medical treatments--s
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Source:National Science Foundation


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