Not many kids growing up in Salt Lake City raise carnivorous plants in their backyard. But not everyone is Paul Alan Cox. At age 10, he wrote a letter to the Gasquet National Forest asking permission to collect samples of the rare Dalintonia californica plant — the cobra lily.
Cox was well-versed in the intricacies of carnivorous plants and had cultivated a vibrant collection of flora in his amateur greenhouse. The cobra lily would make a thrilling addition. To his delight, forest officials responded to his request and gave their permission.
He packed up some green tubs for transportation, and his parents drove him two days from Utah to northern California.
The cobra lily gets its nickname from leaves that curl down and inward, like a snake ready to strike. Flies are lured to it by nectar glands. Like all carnivorous plants, the cobra lily has developed a highly specialized method of absorbing nutrients it otherwise couldn’t obtain through the land where it grows.
In this case, that land is rare. The cobra lily grows natively in only two places on earth — southern Oregon and the plot of land in California where the young Paul Cox stood.
It was a marvel, he remembers. A breathtaking, even holy sight.
And then he saw the road.
A construction crew was chiseling away a swath of land to lay pavement right in the path of the lilies. Cox turned to his parents: “Don’t they understand these are precious plants? Why would anyone in their right mind put a road here?”
The Bible’s charge to consider the lilies, he said, took on new meaning. “You seem pretty upset by that road,” a nearby camper called out.
With emotion, Cox responded, “These are God’s creatures. Why kill them?”
This moment would chart the life trajectory for one of the most accomplished ethnobotanists at work today. “I’m motivated by a sense of conserving God’s creation,” Cox, a former Brigham Young University professor, tells me during a recent interview. It’s what has inspired his efforts to establish a national park and champion the preservation of more than a million acres of rainforests and coral reefs around the world.
“I also care deeply about people who are sick,” he says, which brought about research and promising HIV/AIDS and neurological disease treatments. In January, his Wyoming-based lab reported findings that a compound derived from violets could be effective at battling glioblastoma, a highly aggressive and fatal form of brain cancer.
All combined, Cox’s work has made him one of the most influential western scientists and conservationists alive. At a time when the environment, science and belief are increasingly contested, Cox says he’s “blessed” to straddle these worlds.
If conservationists asserted lineage, Paul Alan Cox might lay claim to quite a coat of arms. His father was a National Park ranger and his mother a biologist. His grandfather helped establish Grand Teton National Park, and his great-grandfather helped start the Horticultural Society in Utah and was an early advocate for Arbor Day. Cox married Barbara Wilson, who worked for the National Forest Service.
Naturally, he took up the charge.
In the late 1980s, Cox found himself deep in the Samoan rainforest. He had lived there a decade and a half earlier as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “I was in heaven,” he says.
But this time he returned accompanied by his wife Barbara and their four children. They lived in a comely hut on the doorstep of the Pacific. Cox had already established himself as an ethnobotanist of note and returned to Samoa in order to study the potential medicinal benefits of local plants. But in the midst of his research came a flashback to what happened in that meadow in Northern California years ago.
Loggers were coming to cut down some 30,000 acres of rainforest.
The government of the island had ordered the village to either build a better school or lose its government-funded teachers. The cost to villagers would be $65,000. For residents whose annual income was about $100, selling logging rights to the forest seemed their only choice.
So the Cox family decided to offer an alternative. They proposed to mortgage their home back in Utah in order to foot the bill. But when Cox traveled back to the states to make the arrangements, he was able to court donors who, within six weeks, had pooled enough money to build the school.
Back in Samoa, Cox presented the gift to the village and asked in return that the village protect the forest for the next 50 years. That experience propelled Cox to co-found Seacology, a foundation that seeks to replicate the success in Samoa across the globe, pairing needed infrastructure with conservation efforts. Seacology has now built 364 schools, medical clinics and community centers for indigenous villages in 65 countries. In return, the locals have pledged to protect a collective 1.5 million acres of forests and coral reefs.
In Sri Lanka, Seacology recently provided microloans to 16,000 impoverished women and a week’s worth of business training. In return, the Sri Lankans promised to protect their coastal mangrove forests — the most efficient carbon-sequestering ecosystem on earth.
“If you love the artist,” Cox says to me, “don’t slash his painting.”
Discussions about conservation and climate can be divisive. But Cox strives to sidestep some of the usual tensions. His secret weapon?: “I’m a botanist. Everybody loves plants.”
He once found himself near the coast of Kenya collecting samples for his research. As he prefers to ship his plants home rather than travel with them, he boxed up his samples and took them to the local post office. They told him he needed a customs stamp — a stamp that came from a group of soldiers standing nearby.
Cox admits the scene was a little frightening — soldiers standing with machine guns, probing him about the contents of his box. But then Cox started talking about plants.
“Wait,” the soldiers say, “you know what those are?”
“Oh, my grandma used to use that,” exclaimed one of the guards. The guns went down and they began rifling through the samples, swapping stories about the plants and foods they grew up with.
Cox glanced at his watch and politely interrupted. “Sorry, I’ve got a bush plane coming that I need to catch.”
“Oh, no problem,” the soldiers said. Stamp. The box was shipped.
Cox ends that story with an expression he would repeat nearly a dozen times during our time together: “I just feel very blessed.”
By any professional measure of success, Cox is indeed blessed.
He graduated valedictorian of his class at Brigham Young University, going on to receive his doctorate in biology from Harvard. He’s held 15 academic positions and professorships, is listed on 59 patents and has published more than 200 academic articles. He once worked a year in the Swedish royal palace as the King Carl XVI Gustaf Professor of Environmental Biology; it was an appointment in honor of the king’s 50th birthday.
But beneath the honors is that simple, boyish gratitude for a beautiful world and the ability to discover its mysteries.
While in Samoa looking for flora that held promise for helping cancer patients, Cox learned of a particular tree bark that had been used for centuries as a treatment for hepatitis. He sent it back home to a lab to analyze any properties that could be useful in the development of a new drug. A promising result emerged — a compound named prostratin that seemed to fight against HIV.
“HIV/AIDS was a very different disease in the ’80s and ’90s than it is today,” Cox reminds me. Social stigma and misconceptions were abundant, as was the pandemic spread of a disease with no cure.
He eventually became involved in the AIDS community, serving on the AIDS Research Alliance board, a less than commonplace position for a devout person of faith at the time. But, he says, it was in fact his faith that compelled him to get involved.
“Those were the very people Jesus would help,” he says. They were the downtrodden and the ill, and working to find an effective treatment had the potential to change lives. Cox helped patent prostratin with a contract that if it became commercially available, the Samoan people would be duly recognized and receive a share of the profits.
The experience awakened within Cox an obligation to keep going, to tackle the next great illness afflicting society. So while prostratin began a long journey through the pharmaceutical pipeline, Cox set his sights on another target.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease — is a neurodegenerative disease in which the brain loses its ability to communicate with the body’s muscles, slowly inhibiting a person’s capacity to walk, grasp, speak or breathe. It’s always fatal.
That doesn’t mean scientists are far from a breakthrough, and Cox can count himself among the cohort inching closer to a cure.
The origin of his work began nearly two decades ago when he turned his attention to the Chamorro people of Guam. After World War II, almost a quarter of the indigenous population in certain villages died of an illness that resembled ALS, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
No one could explain it.
The locals knew the seeds of the cycad tree, which were used to make flour for tortillas, were toxic if not properly rinsed. But Cox observed the Chamorro people also consuming flying foxes — fruit-eating bats that feasted on cycad seeds.
When they analyzed the flesh of the bats, they found the concentration of toxins to be 100 times higher than that found in the flour made from cycad seeds. Cox and his consortium of scientists also observed high levels of toxins — BMAA in particular — to be present in the brains of people with neurological diseases.
The culprit in Guam, Cox concluded, was toxic release from cyanobacteria growing in the roots of the cycad tree.
Cyanobacteria are microorganisms that represent the earliest form of life on earth. Algal blooms, common in bodies of water during warm summer months, are hotbeds for the organism, which sometimes give home to the BMAA neurotoxin. There’s evidence the bacteria can even become airborne during a large and dangerous bloom. Cox also has found cyanobacteria under the desert soil of Qatar, offering a possible connection to the unusually high number of ALS cases among soldiers who fought in the Desert Storm campaign in Kuwait.
Cox then traveled to the Ogimi village of Okinawa, Japan, a region with more centenarians than any other in the world. The village has no recorded instances of ALS. He visited to observe the lifestyles and diets of the residents, hoping their habits revealed a secret to their longevity and lack of neurological disease.
He found what he was looking for.
Besides engaging in a physically active daily routine — gardening is popular— the people of Ogimi eat a diet rich in vegetables and fruits, seaweeds, and tofu. When Cox and his laboratory in Wyoming began analyzing the foods, one element came back off the charts: the amino acid L-serine.
For proteins to carry out their function within the body, they must fold like origami in intricate ways. When a protein misfolds, it can affect the health of the cell in which it resides, and enough protein-misfolding can lead to negative health effects in the body. As it happens, protein-misfolding is believed to be the primary cause of ALS, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
One of the roles of L-serine is to help the protein do its job correctly, and with strong preliminary evidence that an increase in L-serine can slow or combat the onset of neurological disease, Cox is forging ahead. His initial trial for a potential new treatment, albeit with only 20 participants, shows promise. He now has phase II trials underway, and should they go well, he’s hoping to partner with a pharmaceutical company to carry out a large phase III trial and push the treatment toward regulatory approval.
Cox does this work in his office, Brain Chemistry Labs, nestled on the edge of the woods in Jackson, Wyoming. You’d be forgiven for thinking it was a winter cabin if it didn’t share the same parking lot as a clothing store and wasn’t across the street from a Carquest Auto Parts. He works in the space with just a handful of accomplished scientists and collaborates with a consortium of 50 researchers and medical doctors around the world.
Given what he’s hoping to accomplish there, some folks approach him and ask why he didn’t get into biotech; he could make a fortune.
He responds simply, “Because we don’t care about profits.”
A little more than a decade ago, a study released by Rice University shared some unconventional results: For many people, science and religion aren’t mutually exclusive. Their relationship is often overlapping.
“It’s very important to dispel the myth that people believe that religion and science either do or don’t conflict,” the authors of the report write. “Our study found that many people have much more nuanced views.”
For people like Paul Cox, there doesn’t seem to be much of any conflict at all. He feels “unconstrained” by his membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he says. “I feel complete license to ask any question or pursue any avenue of research.”
The only thing required of him is to believe what is true, he says.
And he sees truth all around him. Echoing a passage from the Book of Mormon, he reflects on the beauty of celestial bodies orbiting the sun and the complexity of terrestrial life. He recaps for me a recent Sunday School lesson he taught about Noah and what the prophet’s task reveals about the way God cares for his creations.
“Children get this,” Cox says when I ask him if he’s optimistic about the future of the environment. “Walk into any classroom and they really understand we need to protect the plants and animals.”
Over a recent Zoom call, Cox wants to make sure I have a chance to see the snow-capped mountains visible through the window in his Jackson home. He tilts his computer so I can take in the scene. The sun is setting and the peaks of Grand Teton National Park rise from the next ridge over.
He doesn’t express how he’s feeling at the moment, but I have a guess: “blessed.”