Scientists at FAU's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (HBOI) have designed and built a new "tool sled," which is attached to a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that allows them to pick up items from the ocean floor. This apparatus provides HBOI scientists with the opportunity to continue their decades-long search for sea sponges that produce chemicals that have the potential to combat an array of diseases including Alzheimer's disease and several types of cancers.
"The value of collecting samples of marine life from the seafloor with this ROV can't be overstated," said Shirley Pomponi, Ph.D., FAU research professor and executive director of the Cooperative Institute for Ocean Exploration, Research and Technology (CIOERT), which is headquartered at HBOI and funded by the NOAA Ocean Exploration and Research program. "The primary goal of our marine biomedical and biotechnology program is to discover marine natural products with utility as medicines or as tools to better allow us to understand disease processes."
Natural products, or secondary metabolites, are small, organic molecules produced by organisms. Unlike primary metabolites such as sugars, fats or proteins, these molecules are not essential to sustain life, however, the compounds are thought to confer an evolutionary advantage to the producing organism. For example, if a sponge makes a compound that is toxic to predators, or tastes bad, that sponge may be protected from being eaten, and will have an advantage over one that does not produce the compound. In addition to blocking predation, natural products can have many different functions within the producing organism.
"Although sponges are an ancient group of animals that appeared more than 600 million years ago, many of the genes they have are the same as those involved in cancer," said Pomponi. "We can take advantage of this similarity in human and sponge genomes to develop medicines useful in the treatment of human diseases."
Pomponi, together with John Reed, chief scientist and research professor at HBOI, recently returned from a two-week scientific expedition in the Gulf of Mexico to explore and map previously unchartered deepwater coral reefs and essential fish habitats on the southwest Florida Shelf, and used the new tool sled to collect specimens from the seafloor.
The sled was designed and built by HBOI and FAU's College of Engineering and Computer Science, along with the University of North Carolina Wilmington. HBOI has a long history in the discovery and development of marine natural products that could be developed into drugs, having collected more than 30,000 samples from the sea using tools such as the Johnson Sea-Link submersibles.
HBOI's drug discovery program, spearheaded by Amy Wright, Ph.D., research professor, primarily looks for treatments for cancer and infectious disease, and their scientists also have collaborations with other scientists working on malaria, tuberculosis, neurodegenerative disease and inflammation.
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