Drugs from sea study finds sponge health link to bacteria

BALTIMORE, Md. Calif.--In research aimed at finding natural compounds from the sea for drugs and other products, a team of scientists report in the journal Marine Biology on a bacterium that seems to be an indicator for health of a marine sponge.

The team found that a type of sponge living along the Great Barrier Reef near Australia contains a "culturable" population of almost entirely one strain of bacteria, living in a close relationship with the porous sea animals but not in surrounding waters. There are also many "uncultured" bacteria in the sponge that scientists cannot yet grow.

"We have found that the culturable microbe population is very stable," reports Russell Hill of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute (UMBI). "The presence of this bacterium seems to be related to the health of the sponge and is a good model for our work." Some unhealthy specimens of the same type of sponge, Rhopaloeides odorabile, did not contain the bacterial strain, report Hill, a molecular microbiologist at UMBI's Center of Marine Biotechnology, and colleagues at the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS).

Understanding the symbiosis of such microbes and sponges is a critical step in studying potential biologically active, possibly medicinal, compounds in such bacteria. Sponges are recognized as rich sources of new compounds with biologically active ingredients that could qualify as new medicinal drug candidates. In some cases the bioactive compounds are likely to come from bacteria rather than the sponges themselves..

A January 2001 study, published by the COMB/AIMS team, opened the possibility that bacteria living in marine sponges may be a rich source of future drugs. In the earlier study, they identified by gene sequencing studies that many of the uncultured bacteria from sponges surveyed were in a bacterial family Actinomycetes. For many decades, soil borne members of the microbe family have been the sources of 60 to 70 percent of to

Contact: Steve Berberich
University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute

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