A 60,000-year-old forest submerged in the Gulf of Mexico may hold potential for the development of new medicines and biotechnology in the future – and scientists are only just beginning to understand what other secrets it may hold.
Along the banks of a river in Alabama was once a flourishing bald cypress forest. As the trees grew and died, they eventually fell and become buried in peat and sediment. Over time, sea levels rose and covered the ancient forest far beneath the surface of the ocean in what would eventually become a unique and isolated habitat for marine organisms.
Intensifying storm systems have recently disturbed the seafloor to expose these large logs, which have become a bit of a reef-like marine ecosystem home to wood-eating “shipworms,” which are technically clams (Teredinid bivalve). These shipworms are also known as the “termites of the sea” – a nickname they’ve received thanks to their ability to convert wood into animal tissue that forms the foundation of the deep-sea food chain.
“Marine animals and their symbiotic microorganisms that live on and in wood have recently been shown to be a potentially rich source for biomolecules of high biopharmaceutical and biotechnological value,” writes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA in an expedition overview. Previous research pinpointed a bacteria found in shipworms that led to an antibiotic that is being investigated as a drug to treat parasitic infections, notes the agency. Because such drugs are created using symbiotic microbes, they are “pre-screened” by their hosts and are less likely to be toxic to animals, holding biopharmaceutical potential.
Researchers at Northeastern University College of Science operating under a grant provided by the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research deployed remote sensing and marine robots last December over the course of two days. In total, they have collected, photographed, and identified more than 300 animals found on the wood, some that may be used for future DNA analysis. Additionally, the team has identified around 100 strains of bacteria, a dozen of which are currently undergoing DNA sequencing.
Future analysis will help to determine whether any of the samples have the capacity to break down wood, which could also have applications in the wood, textile, and renewable fuel sectors.
The researchers add that their work lays the groundwork for understanding similar marine communities as possible sources for new compounds, further helping to establish “new tools for future discovery and education.”