REVEALED by a storm, the ancient site may yield novel medicines :

''Underwater forest'' is not a metaphor - this is not a coral reef or sea grass bed that resembles surface surface woodlands but bona fide trees with roots and leaves.

For thousand of years, this cypress groove - about two football fields long and five feet wide - lay silent, preserved with an oxygen-less tomb of sand and sediment. Then came Hurricane Ivan.

It was 6 a.m. at the dock On Tuesday in December, and the weather did not look promising. Fog hovered over the water, and the engine of the Research Vessel E.O. Wilson rumbled.

Our ship disappeared into the mist, and by 7:30 the team of biologists, chemists and microbiologists aboard had reached its destination.The sun lounged on the obsidian water, masking a secret world where land and sea swap places, and past, present and future collide.

This is the underwater forest at the bottom of Gulf of Mexico, near the border of Alabama and Florida. It's unusual residents - shipworms and related marine organisms - could serve as incubators of unexpected medicines, new lifesaving formulas and compounds that may not be found anywhere else on the planet.

But first the group of scientists had to dive 60 feet underneath the surface to recover their subjects, a task made more challenging by three days of uncooperative weather.

In 2004, the storm - Category 5, the highest rating - before making landfall, ripped through the Gulf of Mexico, with winds up to 140 mph kicking up 90-foot waves. The storm scooped up nearly 10 feet of sand from the seabed, awakening the sleeping forest beneath.

Mow the forest whispers secrets of the gulf's past environment and climate, and hints at its future. Few have seen it, and those who have intentionally keep its precise location secret. 

But they entrusted this group of scientists led by Dan Distel, a shipworm marine biologist and director of the Ocean Genome Legacy Center for Northeastern University in Boston, with the highly guarded coordinates for that day's expedition.

With a grant from the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, this group aboard the E.O. Wilson was the first to explore, document and study the shipworms and other marine xylophiles that moved into the forest when it emerged.

Shipworms, the scientists say, are critical for drug discovery. As aging populations increase worldwide and antibiotics resistance threatens public health, the medical field is seeking a new frontier that might yield novel drugs to treat conditions such as cancer and chronic pain, and to stem deadly infections.

So they're turning to these aquatic wood-lovers and their symbiotic bacteria, which are great chemists.

The honor and serving of this latest operational research on Novel Medicines and Future, continues. The World Students Society thanks authors Joanna Klein and Annie Flanagan.


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