Mollusks Could Be Responsible For Future Medications
January 30, 2013

Mollusks Could Be Responsible For Future Medications

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Two new mollusk-based studies from the Oregon Health & Science University show that new cutting-edge medications could be developed by simply looking to the sea.

Because of accessibility issues, the ocean has always been a difficult place for identifying and utilizing the natural resources located there. Sadly, when many of these resources were tapped, they were done so in an unsustainable manner.

The first study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) focused on the long, skinny marine creature known as the shipworm. The term shipworm is actually a misnomer as the animal is not a worm, but a mollusk. It gets its name from its appearance and also its reputation for affixing itself to wooden ships and then feeding on the wood, causing damage to the hull.

Shipworms are able to digest the wood, typically considered a poor food source, through the creative use of bacteria in its gut. This bacteria peaked researchers interest and they were able to identify a powerful antibiotic that the mysterious single-celled organisms produce.

The research team speculated that this antibiotic could lead to groundbreaking new medications that could be used in the ongoing battle against infections.

"The reason why this line of research is so critical is because antibiotic resistance is a serious threat to human health," said Margo Haygood, a professor of science and engineering in the OHSU School of Medicine.

"Antibiotics have helped humans battle infectious diseases for over 70 years. However, the dangerous organisms these medications were designed to protect us against have adapted due to widespread use,” she added. “Without a new class of improved antibiotics, older medications are becoming less and less effective and we need to locate new antibiotics to keep these diseases at bay. Bacteria that live in harmony with animals are a promising source. "

The second OHSU mollusk study, which was published in the journal Chemistry and Biology, examined cone snails, a category of predatory and venomous sea snails. In the past, scientists did not consider cone snails as ideal candidates for undiscovered antibiotics because of their thick shells and toxic venom they typically rely on for defense. Scientists therefore assumed that the snails would not have developed antibiotic capabilities for additional protection.

"Mollusks with external shells, like the cone snail, were previously overlooked in the search for new antibiotics and other medications," explained co-author Eric Schmidt, a biochemist at the University of Utah.

An analysis of the snail´s biology showed that they host symbiotic bacteria that synthesize antibiotic compounds.

"This discovery tells us that these animals also produce compounds worth studying. It's hoped that these studies may also provide us with valuable knowledge that will help us combat disease," said Schmidt.

The two studies were the product of the Philippine Mollusk Symbiont International Cooperative Biodiversity Group.

Led by Haygood, this group is a collaboration among OSHU, University of the Philippines, the University of Utah, The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and Ocean Genome Legacy scientists. They are focused on training, conservation, and the development of natural resources within the Philippines.