Thousands of years ago, a forest of bald cypress trees grew on the banks of a river near the Gulf of Mexico. As the massive trees aged, they fell into the soft soil along the river. They sank deep into peat and river sediment. Over more time, sea levels rose, covering the embedded trees with salt water. For millennia, the fallen forest remained undisturbed off the coast of Alabama.
As storms churned up the Gulf waters, evidence of the forest emerged. “What secrets might the submarine forest hold? What potential for new resources for medicines?” scientists asked.
Last year, a team of scientists formed from Northeastern University and the University of Utah. With funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the team sent divers into the fallen forest. They retrieved samples of the well-preserved ancient wood to study in laboratories.
Hundreds of creatures thrived inside the naturally (or miraculously!) preserved material. Scientists removed, photographed, and identified more than 300 different animals. Of particular interest for the team are wood-eating shipworms. These sea creatures aren’t actually worms. They are wood-boring clams. Shipworms devour wood as they drill into it, digesting it and turning it into animal tissue.
Shipworms also harbor bacteria. God designed the clams and bacteria to work together. This is called a symbiotic relationship. The bacteria produce enzymes that help to break down the wood that the clams eat. One type of bacteria discovered previously in shipworms led to development of a new antibiotic. This group of researchers is looking for more such potential from the bacteria contained by the underwater forest. They believe there could be many pharmaceutical solutions just waiting to be discovered, adapted, and used.
Margo Haygood is a research professor of medicinal chemistry at University of Utah. She told CNN that the shipworm bacteria could open doors to pursue “pain drugs as well as anti-cancer drugs.”
Medicines developed from symbiotic microbes are often safer than drugs developed from “free-living” bacteria. That’s because the symbiotic bacteria aren’t toxic to their hosts. But free-living bacteria sometimes cause illnesses or poisoning for other creatures that contract them.
The team is culturing approximately 100 strains of bacteria gathered from the clams within the cypress wood. The team says many are “novel,” meaning they’ve never been identified before. That may sound like a lot of “new” to work with, but so far, the group has explored only a very small amount of the ancient forest site. There could be years’ worth of discovery yet ahead.