"Three quarters of the world is covered by oceans, and we've only dipped below the surface," Molinski said.
This chemist sees natural products from marine organisms as an opportunity to answer questions in biology and find potential leads for the next generation of drugs, whether those are anti-fungals or treatments for cancer. Many pharmaceutical drugs on the market, from aspirin to cholesterol-lowering "statins," are derived from natural products such as plants or bacteria. Molinski says modern developments in analytical chemistry, including highly sensitive instrumentation, sophisticated screening capabilities and discoveries from mapping the human genome, have created a renaissance of interest in these sources of potential medicines.
Molinski's laboratory studies the chemistry and biology of marine natural products, or chemical compounds made by sea creatures. It is part of a developing focus on pharmaceutical chemistry within the UC Davis chemistry department, including research on biologically active molecules and high-throughput screening techniques.
Most of Molinski's samples come from sponges and tunicates, marine creatures that can neither swim away from a diver nor bite. Recently, the researchers have also begun to collect samples from cyanobacteria, single-celled organisms that occur as slimy mats or filaments in places such as coral reefs and mangrove lagoons.
Some of these compounds have biochemical activities that could be useful in medicine -- killing microbes, stopping growth of cancer cells, or affecting the flow of calcium in and out of cells.