HOPE in an underwater forest : Revealed by a storm, the ancient site may yield novel medicine.

So a team of scientists are studying an ancient underwater cypress forest in the Gulf of Mexico. The team has generated enough work to last a lifetime, or more.

A place like no other : The sunken forest was once part of a swamp about 100 miles inland. Its trees, a type known as bald cypress, and their buttressed trunks as big as cars supported a diversity of terrestrial life.

But now it shelters grouper, red snapper, mantis shrimp, crabs, anemones and other sea dwellers. And for shipworms, it's an all you-can-eat buffet.

''This is sort of like a wooden whale fall,'' Margo Haywood a molecular biologist at the University of Utah, said before a trip; a whale fall is a dead whale that sinks to the seafloor. Life erupts around it. 

The sunken forest is larger, further from shore and and older than anything remotely like it. And as novel habitats and money for drug discovery dwindle, and antibiotic resistance, new diseases infections and age-related illnesses rising, the research team thinks to uncover new drugs.

Like wildflowers, a fire, diversity blooms as new habitats are established. In the early stages of settlement, when everything is still fighting for space, territory disputes kick up a lot of chemistry. And while sitting through it all, Dr. Haygood thinks there's a better chance of finding nontoxic new drugs that work well.

Shipworms appear to be good drug makers, and while studying them elsewhere, the team has discovered compounds that now are now making their way through the early stages of drug development.

Their pharmaceutical talent might be explained by bacteria living in their gills, which send enzymes to the to help shipworms break down wood.
Somehow, this process also leaves the gut nearly sterile, suggesting antibiotics might be at play.

And Dr. Haygood says that any compounds they find have already gone through millions of years of  pre-screening to the bodies of evolving shipworms. This makes them likely to be less toxic to humans than drugs that are whipped up in a lab.

Each species, they have found, has a distinct and different set of bacterial partners, or symbiont. In their view, every unstudied species, every specimen, is potentially an unopened treasure chest of  unimagined chemical combinations.

And a site like the underwater forest  might be concealing millions of unknown bacteria.

The honor and serving of the latest operational research on novel and future medicines, continues.


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