Future life-saving medications may currently be living at the bottom of the sea
Washington, January 30 : Ocean-based mollusks a category of animal that includes snails, clams and squid and their bacterial companions could be the source of next class of powerful medications, researchers have suggested.
Sea life studies aid researchers in several ways, including the development of new medications and biofuels. Because many of these ocean animal species have existed in harmony with their bacteria for millions of years, these benign bacteria have devised molecules that can affect body function without side effects and therefore better fight disease.
To generate these discoveries, a research partnership called the Philippine Mollusk Symbiont International Cooperative Biodiversity Group was formed. As the name suggests, the group specifically focuses on mollusks, a large phylum of invertebrate animals, many of which live under the sea.
Margo Haygood, Ph.D., an OHSU marine microbiologist, leads the group, with partners at the University of the Philippines, the University of Utah, The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and Ocean Genome Legacy.
Their first paper, published in the current edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, focuses on a unique animal called a shipworm, which despite its name is not a worm.
Shipworms are mollusks and are clam-like creatures that use their shells as drills and feed on wood by burrowing into the wood fibers. They are best known for affixing themselves to the sides of wooden ships. Over time, their wood feeding causes serious damage to the hull of those ships.
The research team initially focused on shipworms because the animals' creative use of bacteria to convert wood - a poor food source lacking proteins or nitrogen - into a suitable food source where the animal can both live and feed.
This research revealed that one form of bacteria utilized by shipworms secretes a powerful antibiotic, which may hold promise for combatting human diseases.
In another study, a team led by researchers from the University of Utah, and including OHSU and the University of the Philippines researchers, took part in a separate study of cone snails collected in the Philippines. Cone snails are also mollusks.
The research, published in the current edition of the journal Chemistry and Biology, demonstrated how bacteria carried by cone snails produce a chemical that is neuroactive, meaning that it impacts the function of nerve cells, called neurons, in the brain. Such chemicals have promise for treatment of pain.
"Mollusks with external shells, like the cone snail, were previously overlooked in the search for new antibiotics and other medications," said, Eric Schmidt, Ph.D., a biochemist at the university of Utah and lead author of the article.
"This discovery tells us that these animals also produce compounds worth studying. It's hoped that these studies may also provide us with valuable knowledge that will help us combat disease," he added.