The sea is constantly throwing up strange things that are seemingly made just to surprise scientists. Take a look at this new discovery: a bacteria found in marine sponges that make toxic compounds “nearly identical” to artificial fire retardants, just like the stuff you find in firefighter uniforms or electronics.
The discovery was made by a team led by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. The new study appears on the cover of the May issue of the journal Nature Chemical Biology.
This powerful group of chemical compounds is known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE). We have known that these compounds have been in the world’s oceans for up to 50 years. However, their origin had always been a puzzle.
“For many years scientists were finding clues that suggested nature was making these compounds,” senior author Bradley Moore said in a statement. “Now that we understand how they are produced in the marine environment, we are exploring why they exist, and the human health concerns associated with them.”
The team collected 18 Dysideidae sponges from the tropical waters around Guam in the Western Pacific. Once back at the lab, they managed to isolate the specific genes and enzymes that code for the production of PBDEs.
“For the first time we were able to conclusively show that genes and enzymes produced in bacteria from sponges are responsible for the production of these compounds toxic to humans,” study co-first author Vinayak Agarwal said in the statement.
The study of the bacteria producing chemicals very similar to industrial chemicals isn’t just a strange curiosity, it’s also pretty important. After all, they are highly toxic to humans. Naturally produced PBDEs are often detected in marine animals, as well as in human tissue, suggesting that they bioaccumulate along the food chain and transfer to humans.
The Environmental Protection Agency explains that “PBDE congeners are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic to both humans and the environment. The critical endpoint of concern for human health is neurobehavioral effects.” Their study notes that nature is a remarkably “prolific producer of polyhalogenated organic compounds” including these PBDEs are even more toxic that their human-made counterparts.
"This study is a powerful combination of chemical, biological and environmental research," added Henrietta Edmonds of the NSF's Division of Ocean Sciences, who helped to support the research. "It has the potential to help us understand the production, fate and health consequences of natural and pollutant compounds in the marine environment."
Why some of these bacteria produce the PBDE remains a mystery, however. It also remains to be seen whether the bacteria is fire-proof.