60,000-year-old underwater forest could make new drugs, scientists say

60,000-year-old underwater forest could make new drugs, scientists say

Organisms that have been found in wood samples from a 60,000-year-old underwater forest could potentially be used to create antibiotics and other lifesaving medicines, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

An article published by NOAA says that the submerged forest was revealed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 when it tracked through the southern United States and disrupted the seafloor.

The trees that researchers are studying were originally from a bald cypress forest that grew along the banks of a prehistoric river near the Gulf of Mexico. As the trees grew old and fell over they became buried by sediment, which was then flooded by the ocean as sea levels rose.

noaa underwater forest

Wood from the 60,000-year-old bald cypress forest buried off the coast of Alabama. Credit: Francis Choi/ NOAA

Researchers and filmmakers have visited the site since Hurricane Ivan swept through and a team of scientists recently set out on an expedition to the underwater forest. Samples of wood were collected when the scientists went diving so their compounds could be studied to create new medicines and biotechnical materials.

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Their article states that the wood was extremely well-preserved and the underwater forest was unusually large with significant biodiversity. Over 300 organisms were found living on and within the wood and roughly 100 strains of bacteria were identified. The researchers found that many of the bacteria are brand new to science and have never been seen before.

The next steps for these researchers include analyzing their DNA to learn more about their properties and potential for pharmaceutical and biotechnological uses. Previous work by this research team has resulted in at least one antibiotic being under investigation as a drug to treat parasitic infections and they say that these recent woods samples have a high biopharmaceutical potential.

A wood sample that was collected from the submerged forest in Mobile Bay. This sample contains hundreds of marine organisms that either burrow into the wood or live in burrows made by other organisms. Credit: Brian Helmuth/ NOAA

Most of our drugs come from plants on land, but the vast biodiversity within oceans have also provided lifesaving medicines. Marine animals naturally produce their own chemicals to defend themselves against predators and researchers have found that these can be extracted and created into medicines that treat illnesses and diseases in humans.

An example of a marine animal that has lead to groundbreaking treatment is Tectitethya crypta, a large sponge that is found in the Caribbean. Chemicals from this sponge were used as models for the development of several anti-viral and anti-cancer drugs. The chemicals were aptly named spongothymidine and spongouridine and the findings from this research resulted in the first marine-drug that was approved for cancer treatment in 1969.

NOAA states that marine invertebrates produce more antibiotic, anti-cancer, and anti-inflammatory substances than any group of organisms that are found on land. Sponges, tunicates, ascidians, bryozoans and octocorals are considered to be some of the most promising invertebrate groups.

bluebell tunicate WIKI CC

Bluebell tunicate near the the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste. Credit: Nick Hobgood/ Wikimedia Commons

Researchers say that the sessile (non-moving) behaviour of these organisms could by why they produce potent chemicals is because “they are basically sitting ducks” and rely on them to repel predators.

These animals compete with each other for space on the seafloor, which may be why they produce chemicals that attack rapidly dividing cells of competing organisms. Cancer cells typically divide more rapidly than normal cells, which is why researchers are studying how the chemicals produced by these animals could influence uncontrolled cell division in humans.

Scientists are able to create new drugs by analyzing the chemicals marine animals contain and then replicating them in laboratories to reduce the need to harvest these species from the ocean. NOAA states that there is significant potential for discovering medicines in the oceans, but says we need to reduce stressors on the ocean, such as warming temperatures and pollution.

“Do your part to protect coral reefs. Do not buy coral jewelry or home décor. And when snorkelling, fishing, or scuba diving, be careful to not touch or disrupt coral beds or the seafloor. The next cure could be hidden there,” NOAA says.