Bioprospecting in Practice: How a drug goes from the ocean to the clinic.

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2020 issue of the Deep-sea Mining Observer. It is reprinted here with permission. For the latest news and analysis about the development of the deep-sea mining industry, subscribe to DSM Observer here: http://dsmobserver.com/subscribe/

Bioprospecting, the discovery of new pharmaceutical compounds, industrial chemicals, and novel genes from natural systems, is frequently cited among the critical non-mineral commercial activities that yield value from the deep ocean. Isolating new chemicals or molecular processes from nature can provide substantial benefits to numerous industries. The value of products derived from marine genetic resources alone is valued at $50 billion while a single enzyme isolated from a deep-sea hydrothermal vent used in ethanol production has an annual economic impact of $150 million. 

In contrast to other extractive processes, bioprospecting is driven by and dependent on biodiversity. The greater the diversity and novelty of an ecosystem, the greater the likelihood that new compounds exist within that community. Bioprospecting is also viewed as light extraction, compounds only need to be identified once–actual production happens synthetically in the lab–thus leaving ecosystems relatively undisturbed compared to more intensive industries.

Despite the promise and importance of bioprospecting, there is generally a relatively poor understanding of what the process of discovery entails. How do researchers go from sponges on the seafloor to new antiviral treatments? 

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A global assessment of biodiversity and research effort at active Seafloor Massive Sulphides: Transcript from my talk at the International Seabed Authority.

[The following is a transcript from a talk I gave at a side event during Part II of the 25th Session of the International Seabed Authority in July, 2019. It has been lightly edited for clarity.]

I want to change gears this afternoon and talk about a very different kind of mining. For the last two years, Diva and I have been engaged in a data mining project to discover what we can learn and what we still need to learn about biodiversity at hydrothermal vents from the 40-year history of ocean exploration in the deep sea.

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Cut rock samples from the Rio Grande Rise show Fe-Mn crusts (black and gray) growing on various types of iron-rich substrate rocks (pale to dark brown). Photo credit: Kira Mizell, USGS.

A lost continent, rich in cobalt crusts, could create a challenging precedent for mineral extraction in the high seas.

[This article originally appeared yesterday in the Deep-sea Mining Observer. ~Ed.]

The Rio Grande Rise is an almost completely unstudied, geologically intriguing, ecologically mysterious, potential lost continent in the deep south Atlantic. And it also hosts dense cobalt-rich crusts.

The Rio Grande Rise is a region of deep-ocean seamounts roughly the area of Iceland in the southwestern Atlantic. It lies west of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge off the coast of South America and near Brazil’s island territories. As the largest oceanic feature on the South American plate, it straddles two microplates. And yet, like much of the southern Atlantic deep sea, it is relatively under sampled.

Almost nothing is known about the ecology or biodiversity of the Rio Grande Rise.

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What is a Sand Shark?

I’d like to take a moment rant about a particular pet peeve of mine, which involves the seemingly-dull subject of species common names.  As you may have learned in biology class, all identified and described species are assigned a Latin scientific name, which is intended to be a universal identifier of that species regardless of where it’s coming up in conversation.  However, scientific names are not typically very familiar to non-scientists, so common names remain the most, well, common way to refer to a species.

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Fun Science FRIEDay – Visualize the Seafloor

Happy FSF! As some of you may know (and for those who don’t), I study the bottom of the ocean, and I do so primarily using innovative technology to image the seafloor (e.g., Wormcam). The interesting work I’ve conducted has resulted in me having the opportunity to present my work to a larger lay audience, in the form of a TEDx presentation.

(Photo Credit: TEDx Newport)

(Photo Credit: TEDx Newport)

I am giving my TED talk with my good buddy and colleague Steve Sabo.  In our talk, “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Worms”, Steve & I will illustrate the significance of the ocean floor through advancements in underwater camera technology and data visualization, making complex science more accessible for everyone.

Our TED photo (Photo credit: Meg Heriot)

Our TED photo (Photo credit: Meg Heriot)

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How to follow along with CITES #COP17 on twitter

cop17_rhino_hpOn September 24th, the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) begins. I’ve made a Storify guide to government agencies, scientists, activists, and environmental non-profits who will be tweeting updates from the event. If you want to follow along with these important conservation debates and votes on twitter, follow #COP17 and follow the accounts I’ve highlighted in this Storify.

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Fun Science FRIEDay – The worlds largest sponge.

Recently a team of scientists on a deep sea expedition in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands aboard the R/V Okeanos Explorer made a monumental discovery… pun intended. While exploring the depths of the seafloor in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, with their remotely operated vehicles (ROV) Seirios and Deep Discover, they discovered and documented the largest sponge ever observed on this planet… or any planet for that matter.

Large hexactinellid sponge found in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (Photo credit: NOAA's Office of Exploration and Research)

Large hexactinellid sponge found in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (Photo credit: NOAA’s Office of Exploration and Research)

Lateral view of a large hexactinellid sponge found in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (Photo credit: NOAA's Office of Exploration and Research)

Lateral view of a large hexactinellid sponge found in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument
(Photo credit: NOAA’s Office of Exploration and Research)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Fun Science FRIEDay – Dude, I’m Glowing!

Happy Fun Science FRIEDay! After a brief hiatus, due to life, hoping this installment represents the regular…err, semi-regular, occurrence of FSF.

So this hit the interwebs pretty big earlier this week, the first documented reptile to glow. That honor belongs to the Hawksbill a sea turtle, observed first by  David Gruber, of City University of New York.

Fluorescing hawksbill sea turtle. (Photo credit: David Gruber, of City University of New York)

Fluorescing hawksbill sea turtle. (Photo credit: David Gruber, of City University of New York)

Lets get one thing out of the way before we delve into the glowing version of Crusher (for my finding Nemo aficionados). The sea turtle is not glowing, its fluorescing… there is a difference. In the ocean lots of organisms fluoresce at longer wavelengths (green, yellow, red) in response to shorter wavelengths (UV, blue, violet). It is a typical property of many biological materials and is noticeable if viewed through restrictive long pass filters, as is the case here.

That being said, documenting a sea turtle fluorescing is still pretty freaking cool! Like many scientific discoveries this was totally by happenstance. David was in the Solomon Islands to film biofluorescence in small sharks and coral reefs. And during his observations of sharks and corals glowing Crusher just swims by like, “Dude, I’m all glowing and stuff.”

Checkout the awesome video of it below, and Happy FSF!

 

 

Happy Fun Science FRIEDay – Glass Frogs

Raise your hand if you realized there were frogs so translucent you could see their innards? Ok if you actually raised your hand while reading this, kudos, but put it down now. Glass frogs are tiny green organisms whos organs are visible from their underside given the translucent nature of their bellies. There were 148 species of glass frogs, all of which reside in Central and South America.  Well make that 149 species of glass frogs now! Recently a new species of glass frog, Hyalinobatrachium dianae, was discovered in in the forested mountains of eastern Costa Rica.

A new species of glass frog named Hyalinobatrachium dianae. (Photo credit: Brian Kubicki)

A new species of glass frog named Hyalinobatrachium dianae. (Photo credit: Brian Kubicki)

The frog is nocturnal and stands out from other glass frogs because of its long, thin feet and black-and-white eyes. This new species also boasts a distinct call, which frogs produce to attract females. This frogs call is a long tiny whistle similar to the noise produced by insects, which helps explain why this frog went unidentified for so long.

Glass frogs are tanslucent, so their organs are visible. (Photo credit: Brian Kubicki)

Glass frogs are tanslucent, so their organs are visible.
(Photo credit: Brian Kubicki)

You can view this study in its entirety at the journal of Zootaxa.

 

Happy FSF!

Middle Earth could have been saved by the Endangered Species Act

Smaug gigan

Smaug gigananteus syn. Cordylus giganteus, the Giant Girdled Lizard, because of course there’s an actual species named Smaug. Photo by Wilfried Berns.

In a cave in the Lonely Mountain there lived a dragon. Not a gnarly, goblin-stuffed, slimy cave, filled with the bowels of orcs and fishy creepers, nor yet an empty, granite, echo-less cave with nothing in it to lie down on or horde: it was a dragon-cave, and that meant gold. At least it did, until a nasty band of poachers found Lonesome Smaug, the last of his species, alone, asleep, threatening none, and smote his genus from the red ledger, stripping Middle Earth of critical biodiversity.

The ecologists of Carsondell would say, of the age of war that followed, that the men and dwarves and elves and hobbits brought the darkness upon themselves. Indeed, as the Dark Lord raised his army, denuded the forests, and belched carbon from the factories of Mordor, Gandalf the Grey, one of the more powerful, though among the least conservation-minded, of the wizards would remark: “It has been said that dragon-fire could melt and consume the Rings of Power, but there is not now any dragon left on earth in which the old fire is hot enough.”

The Grey Wizard failed to mention that, were it not for his callousness, there would be*.

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