Next powerful medicine may be buried under the sea

By David Self Newlin | Posted - Feb 7th, 2013 @ 8:29am

SALT LAKE CITY — Some of the most powerful medicines have come from very unexpected places, anywhere from rainforest plants to molds and fungi. Where will the next big medicine be located? Some scientists say under the sea.

"Mollusks with external shells, like the cone snail, were previously overlooked in the search for new antibiotics and other medications," said University of Utah researcher Eric Schmidt.

He authored a recent study suggesting that these animals, or more specifically their symbiotic bacteria, could provide valuable compounds that could fight disease with fewer detrimental side effects.

Often, bacteria on deep sea mollusks produce toxins that protect their host. But cone snails have thick protective shells to keep predators at bay. If that weren't enough, they are also venomous. Scientists thought that because of these protections, the bacteria that live exclusively on the snails wouldn't need their own chemical defenses in order to survive.

An example of a shipworm.

That turned out not to be true. Those symbiotic bacteria produced at least one class of compounds called nocapyrones that were neuroactive, stimulating neurons in the brain.

"This discovery tells us that these animals also produce compounds worth studying," Schmidt said. "It's hoped that these studies may also provide us with valuable knowledge that will help us combat disease."

In a second related study, researchers at the Oregon Health and Science University looked at another mollusk known as a shipworm.

Though they are long and slinky like a worm, they are actually clams, burrowing into the panels of wooden ships and feeding of the wood itself. That alone makes the animal interesting because wood has low nutritional content and is extremely difficult to digest. To get around that, they use bacteria that digest the wood and give the shipworm access to the little nutritional value available.

As it turns out, one of the species of bacteria also produced a powerful antibiotic that could be useful in treating human diseases.

"The reason why this line of research is so critical is because antibiotic resistance is a serious threat to human health," said OHSU professor Margo Haygood.

Because the animals can digest wood, they are also being researched for use in the biofuels industry.

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