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Scientists Diving for Drug Compounds off California’s Coast

As everyone knows by now, the deep sea is a treasure trove of alien-like animals. But the ocean is also home to a cornucopia of microorganisms and minerals. Now, Wired reports that a team of scientists at UC San Diego wants to study a subset of those microorganisms and minerals in order to see which ones can be turned into drugs. Pharmaceutical drugs, that is, which means there will be no Yellow Submarining here!

The scientists, led by oceanographer Lisa Levin, will probe for the microscopic organisms and minerals off Southern California’s coast. Levin and her team, at UCSD’s Scripps Institution, will hit nine sites along the Southern California Borderland (SCB). This region, characterized by fault lines, is rich in invertebrates, microbes, and mineral-rich substrates all worthy of exploration.

“The residents of the deep sea, and the minerals that compose its floor, are of growing importance to modern society for two reasons,” Levin wrote in a recent blog post. “[They] offer significant biopharmaceutical and industrial promises and some of the minerals, such as those in phosphorite and iron-manganese (Fe-Mn) crusts, are increasingly rare and in demand.”

A team of scientists is set to explore the coast off Southern California for marine microorganisms that can be made into drugs.

Mountains in the Sea Research Team

Levin and her team will explore the SCB aboard the Ocean Exploration Trust’s Exploration Vessel Nautilus—a.k.a. the (E/V) Nautilus. The 211-foot-long Nautilus, which has allowed scientists to observe countless deep sea creatures before, offers a robotic submarine (immediately above) that Levin’s team will use to collect samples.

In regards to biopharmaceutical potential, it seems the sky—or the mantle?—is the limit. Wired, for example, notes that federal regulators frequently approve pharmaceuticals developed from marine plants; pharmaceuticals such as cancer treatment drugs, cholesterol-lowering drugs, and even antiviral drugs.

Levin adds in her blog post that ocean sediments harbor bacteria useful in the treatment of cancers, and shallow-water sponges and soft corals have yielded compounds for treating chronic pain. Griffithsin, a protein isolated from red algae, may even be able to help with mitigating HIV and SARS-CoV-2 infections.

Aside from the focus on pharmaceuticals, Levin and her team will be looking to generally catalog the mineral-rich biomes. Beyond looking for cancer treatments, or antiviral-drugs compounds, the scientists also want to study the SBC’s still mysterious ecology.

“The crucial questions, if we ever plan to use these resources wisely for economic gain, are what lives [in the SCB] and what ecosystems services do they provide?” says Levin. She hopes her data will help governments and corporations to understand the tradeoffs involved in exploiting deep-sea resources. And that’s critical, as destroying the ocean’s ecosystems may itself be hazardous to humanity’s health.

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