Shipworms pulled from underwater forest that grew 60,000 years ago could be used to make antibiotics

Researchers investigating tree trunks from an underwater forest

An underwater forest 60 feet below the surface in the Gulf of Mexico may be harbouring life-saving secrets.

Researchers found that shipworms and other marine organisms living in tree trunks that grew nearly 60,000 years ago could be used to design new pharmaceuticals.

We picked apart the wood more or less splinter by splinter and found all kinds of creatures in those samples, but there will certainly be more beyond what we have discovered

Margo Haygood, molecular biologist at the University of Utah

The ancient forest was unearthed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. It sits just 15 miles off the coast, some 60 feet beneath the surface – but, it remained concealed beneath the mud and sand for thousands of years.

More than 300 marine animals were removed from the wood and the team identified 100 strains of bacteria that could potentially pioneer new drug treatments

A team from Northeastern University and the University of Utah is now analysing shipworms and other marine animals pulled from the underwater forest, which they believe contain compounds for medicine and biotechnology.

With advanced sonar machines, the researchers discovered even more trees, buried upwards of 10 feet beneath the sediment

More than 300 animals were removed from the wood, photographed and identified last December. Some were preserved as voucher specimens for future DNA analyses while others were used to create culture plates to sample for microbes.

The team identified approximately 100 strains of bacteria, many of which are novel and 12 of which are already undergoing DNA sequencing for further study of their identity and their biosynthetic potential to make new drugs.

Drug compounds produced by symbiotic microbes are less likely to display toxicity toward animals than free-living bacteria, as these molecules have essentially been ‘pre-screened’ by their animal hosts.


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