Nav: Home

Sorting the myriad medicinal molecules of coral reefs

October 12, 2017

Coral reefs harbor an incredible diversity of life, both sea creatures we can see and microbial life that we cannot. These organisms generate an enormous number of molecules as they eat food, photosynthesize, reproduce and ward off infections. Researchers have identified several coral reef-derived molecules as having medicinal properties, such as secosteroids, which are steroid compounds used to treat inflammatory disorders; or the chemical compound bryostatin 1, derived from an invertebrate coral reef denizen known as bryozoans and being evaluated as a treatment for Alzheimer's disease.

Yet many thousands more coral reef molecules with medicinal potential are unknown to science. A study led by San Diego State University biologists describes a promising new method for screening the molecular output of reef life for important chemical properties, which could make it much easier to identify the next generation of coral reef-derived drugs and better understand the diversity of molecules found in the ocean.

"We know what so few of these molecules are and what they do," said the paper's lead author, Aaron Hartmann, a postdoctoral biologist with a dual appointment at SDSU and the Smithsonian Institution. "That's a pretty big roadblock to developing therapeutic drugs derived from them."

Hartmann led the study alongside SDSU biologist Forest Rohwer and colleagues from the University of California, San Diego; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany; Imperial College London; the CARMABI Foundation Curaçao; the University of Amsterdam, and Bangor University in Wales. Rohwer co-leads the SDSU Viral Information Institute, a world leader in viral ecology research.

Molecular fingerprints

Working with chemist Pieter Dorrestein's laboratory at the Skaggs School of Pharmacy at UC San Diego, the researchers analyzed tissue samples from corals, algae and fungus collected by Rohwer and others on coral reefs near the remote Line Islands in the central Pacific Ocean.They isolated each organism's molecules and sent them through an instrument called a mass spectrometer that measured each molecule's mass. Next, they broke the molecules apart with a laser and measured the masses of those pieces.

Molecules tend to break apart in predictable ways, so by measuring the mass of these chemical pieces, the researchers were able to come up with a set of "molecular fingerprints"--patterns in the chemical profiles that point to the presence of particular molecules.

However, knowing its chemical fingerprint alone can't tell you what a specific molecule does if it hasn't been described before. The database of known molecules represents only a very small fraction of the molecules that exist, Hartmann explained.

To get around that limitation, the researchers next employed an ingenious trick. They used an algorithm created in Dorrestein's lab to screen these molecular fingerprints, and if the chemical makeups of two unknown molecules were similar, they were flagged as related molecules. Hartmann and Daniel Petras, a postdoctoral chemist at UC San Diego, then explored the chemical reactions of these unknown molecules to get a better idea of how they behave.

This analysis helps answer a long-standing mystery in marine biology: Why do coral reefs have such vast molecular diversity? Comparing even very closely related organisms, the researchers discovered each had different molecular fingerprints, suggesting that these organisms can modify the same molecules differently to suit their particular biological niches.

In other words, even closely related organisms might face different health challenges depending on their geographic location, for example, and therefore tweak their molecules just slightly to better defend themselves. The researchers reported their results today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Potential therapeutic value

"Molecular relatedness can tell you about the potential chemical reactions exhibited by these unknown molecules," Hartmann said. "That, in turn, can tell you something about their potential therapeutic value."

So instead of screening each individual molecule one-by-one to see if it has medicinal properties, this technique would allow drug discovery scientists to easily hunt for chemical properties exhibited by known drugs. These newly discovered molecules might have benefits over known drugs--more potent, for example, or with fewer side effects.

"Using this method, we're not held back by the fact that our molecular database is pretty sparse," Hartmann said. "If you know what chemical reactions are important, you can then go looking for molecules with those properties."
-end-
This research was was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the European Union and the German Research Foundation

San Diego State University

Related Coral Reefs Articles:

A brave new world for coral reefs
It is not too late to save coral reefs, but we must act now.
Regular coral larvae supply from neighboring reefs helps degraded reefs recover
For reefs facing huge challenges, more coral larvae doesn't necessarily translate to increased rates of coral recovery on degraded reefs, a new Queensland study has showed.
Potential for Saudi Arabian coral reefs to shine
Careful marine management and stricter fishing laws could enable Saudi Arabia's coral reefs to thrive.
New coral bleaching database to help predict fate of global reefs
A UBC-led research team has developed a new global coral bleaching database that could help scientists predict future bleaching events.
Fish social lives may be key to saving coral reefs
Fish provide a critical service for coral reefs by eating algae that can kill coral and dominate reefs if left unchecked.
Land-based microbes may be invading and harming coral reefs
A new study suggests that coral reefs -- already under existential threat from global warming -- may be undergoing further damage from invading bacteria and fungi coming from land-based sources, such as outfall from sewage treatment plants and coastal inlets.
Dead zones may threaten coral reefs worldwide
Dead zones affect dozens of coral reefs around the world and threaten hundreds more according to a new study by Smithsonian scientists published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Deep reefs unlikely to save shallow coral reefs
Often highlighted as important ecological refuges, deep sections of coral reefs (30-60 m depth) can offer protection from the full force of climate change-related impacts, such as intensifying storms and warm-water bleaching.
Coral reefs grow faster and healthier when parrotfish are abundant
A new study by Smithsonian scientists and colleagues that reveals 3,000 years of change in reefs in the western Caribbean provides long-term, compelling evidence that parrotfish, which eat algae that can smother corals, are vital to coral-reef growth and health.
Rising CO2 threatens coral and people who use reefs
Damage to coral reefs from ocean acidification and sea surface temperature rise will be worst at just the spots where human dependence on reefs is highest, according to a new analysis appearing in PLOS ONE.

Related Coral Reefs Reading:

Coral Reefs: A Journey Through an Aquatic World Full of Wonder
by Jason Chin (Author), Jason Chin (Illustrator)

During an ordinary visit to the library, a girl pulls a not-so-ordinary book from the shelves. As she turns the pages in this book about coral reefs, the city around her slips away and she finds herself surrounded by the coral cities of the sea and the mysterious plants and animals that live, hunt, and hide there.

Coral Reefs by Jason Chin plunges readers into the ocean with incredible facts about fish, coral reefs and marine life. Readers will experience the ocean like they never have before in this stunning picture book full of breathtaking illustrations.

Chin's... View Details


Coral Reefs: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Charles Sheppard (Author)

Coral reefs have been long regarded with awe by the millions of people who have encountered them over the centuries. Early seafarers were wary of them, naturalists were confused by them, yet many coastal people benefited greatly from these mysterious rocky structures that grew up to the surface of the sea. They have been rich in their supply of food, and they provided a breakwater from storms and high waves to countless coastal communities that developed from their protection. Their scale is enormous and their value high. Found in countless locations around the world, from the Indo-Pacific... View Details


Coral Reefs
by Seymour Simon (Author)

Seymour Simon knows how to explain science to kids and make it fun. He was a teacher for more than twenty years, has written more than 250 books, and has won multiple awards.
 
In Coral Reefs, Simon introduces elementary-school readers to the oceans’ reefs through wonderful descriptions and stunning full-color photographs. He encourages appreciation of the ecology of coral reefs, explains why they are in danger, and suggests ways kids can help save the endangered reefs.

View Details


Science Comics: Coral Reefs: Cities of the Ocean
by Maris Wicks (Author)

Every volume of Science Comics offers a complete introduction to a particular topic--dinosaurs, coral reefs, the solar system, volcanoes, bats, flying machines, and more. These gorgeously illustrated graphic novels offer wildly entertaining views of their subjects. Whether you're a fourth grader doing a natural science unit at school or a thirty-year-old with a secret passion for airplanes, these books are for you!

This volume: in Coral Reefs, we learn all about these tiny, adorable sea animals! This absorbing look at ocean science covers the biology of coral reefs as well as... View Details


Reef Coral Identification: Florida, Caribbean, Bahamas 3rd Edition (Reef Set)
by Paul Humann (Author), Ned DeLoach (Author)

The most comprehensive field guide ever published for the visual identification of corals and marine plants of the region. The new 3rd edition includes additional photographs documenting new species and growth variations. The expanded text incorporates the most current scientific research including updated information about the diseases and reproductive behavior of corals. View Details


National Geographic Readers: Coral Reefs
by Kristin Rattini (Author)

In this level 2 reader, young readers explore the amazing underwater world of coral reefs. Beautiful photos and carefully leveled text make this book perfect for reading aloud and for independent reading. View Details


Coral Reefs: In Danger (Penguin Young Readers, Level 3)
by Samantha Brooke (Author), Peter Bull (Illustrator)

Did you know that coral is actually a living creature? That the world?s most famous coral reef, the Great Barrier Reef, is so big that astronauts can see it from outer space? Kids will love learning fun facts about coral reefs, the beautiful fish who make it their home, and why these amazing habitats are in danger. View Details


Coral Reef
by Donald M. Silver (Author), Patricia Wynne (Author)

Hardy adventurers ages 6 - 9 dive into a silent watery world where tiny coral animals grow together to form rock gardens of white, pink, and red-orange. In this action-packed undersea circus, jaws snap, tentacles sting, ink gets squirted, and fish suddenly glow while animals that look like plants sway gently and bashful clams hide the lively secrets inside their shells. Surprisingly dry and armed with a few pieces of equipment and their boundless imaginations, children explore this magical realm one small square at a time. "Science education at its best." ― Science Books and Films View Details


Coral Reefs
by Gail Gibbons (Author), Gail Gibbons (Illustrator)

Marine biologists believe coral reefs existed 400 million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Today this active environment is home to about 20,000 kinds of brilliantly coloured corals, plants, and animals-more sea creatures than are found anywhere else in the world. The Great Barrier Reef in Australia is so large that astronauts can see it from outer space! But what is life like in a coral reef? What do corals eat? Why are corals more colourful at nighttime? Children will enjoy Gibbon's informative text and clear, detailed illustrations on this journey into the unique lives of coral... View Details


Coral Reefs in the Microbial Seas
by Forest Rohwer (Author), Merry Youle (Author), Derek Vosten (Illustrator)

For millennia, coral reefs have flourished as one of the planet's most magnificent natural wonders. As Earth's most biodiverse ecosystem-surpassing even the rainforests-they are home to a cooperative network ranging from immense fish to sunlight-capturing algae to invisible microbes. Just how critical the microbes in particular are for coral reef health is finally understood thanks to recent discoveries. Coral Reefs in the Microbial Seas is the first book to unveil the complete story of how these relationships uphold coral reef health and what impact human activity has on this delicate... View Details

Best Science Podcasts 2017

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2017. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Going Undercover
Are deception and secrecy categorically wrong? Or can they be a necessary means to an end? This hour, TED speakers share stories of going undercover to explore unknown territory, and find the truth. Guests include poet and activist Theo E.J. Wilson, journalist Jamie Bartlett, counter-terrorism expert Mubin Shaikh, and educator Shabana Basij-Rasikh.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#452 Face Recognition and Identity
This week we deep dive into the science of how we recognize faces and why some of us are better -- or worse -- at this than others. We talk with Brad Duchaine, Professor of Psychology at Dartmouth College, about both super recognizers and face blindness. And we speak with Matteo Martini, Psychology Lecturer at the University of East London, about a study looking at twins who have difficulty telling which one of them a photo was of. Charity Links: Union of Concerned Scientists Evidence For Democracy Sense About Science American Association for the Advancement of Science Association for Women...