After a recent tour at FAU’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, along the Indian River Lagoon, in Ft Pierce, I will never look at my kitchen sponge the same again…..
It has been a great pleasure to serve on the FAU, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Foundation Board for just over a year, and at a recent meeting we were able to tour the famous “sponge storage vaults for cancer reasearch” deep within the inner chambers of the university. I had heard about these sponges for decades but had never seen the 3500 specimens that are shared with visiting scientists from all over the world, “face to face.” World scientists visit HBOI because the collection is unique in the world.
Today, I ‘d like to share just a little about what I saw and learned.
This collection of over 3500 sponges and other deep-sea organisms was collected over a period of 20 years with the help of Harbor Branch’s deep SEA-LINK submersibles for which HBOI is famous (http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/technology/subs/sealink/sealink.html).
From areas as remote as 3000 feet deep in our world oceans come these specimens! And some may just may hold the cure for certain cancers, malaria, tuberculosis neurodegenerative disease, bone density improvement, and inflammation….
Walking through the many rooms/cooled vaults of the collection was mind-boggling; our guide was Dr Sheri Pomponi who had collected many of the specimens herself. (http://www.fau.edu/hboi/mbbr/).
Other scientists who assisted us on our tour were Dr Amy Wright, Dr. Peter McCarthy, and Dr Esther Guzmán. The entire presentation was way over my head, but basically I learned that sponges and other deep-sea life do not have such easy lives and participate in a type “chemical warfare” down there vying for survival in a very tough environment.
For instance, a sponge or sea fan like creature may produce chemicals that remarkably allow them to adhere to hard corals, “like bone.” Many can also produce other chemicals, for instance to “taste bad” to predators so they are not eaten…. Amazingly, the chemicals these marine creatures produce to survive can be applied to human survival.
According to Harbor Branch:
“Natural products are inherently bioactive, and most researchers feel that the structures have evolved over time to provide exquisite biological activities. Humans and organisms such as sponges, soft corals and bacteria share similar biochemistry and compounds that might have one use in sponges might have totally different use in humans. Researchers at Harbor Branch can take advantage of the similarity in biochemistry to develop medicines useful in the treatment of human diseases.”
While at the tour, Dr Guzman was actually showing through computer technology how certain chemical compounds from sponges were killing (attacking) cancer cells. “Of course the key is not killing too many other “good” cells at the same time,” she said.
This was like an “Ah-Ha” moment for me. “So some sponge cells kill other cells…even human cells? Like trying to adhere to the coral? Hmmm? The applications? Similar biochemistry? A process better than chemotherapy?” I wondered. Fascinating.
Anyway, the whole thing, taking place right here along the Indian River Lagoon, was incredible and actually a lot of fun because my friend Nancy Higgs who sits on the board with me kept joking over and over again:
“Jacqui, It’s Spongeville! You can write a blog! Spongeville! She and I laughed as we walked deep into the vault, but then suddenly we were very quiet. ”
Wow, maybe the cure for cancer is right in here….” we looked at each other in amazement.
Like I said, I will never be able to look at my kitchen sponge the same again…
FAU/Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute: (http://www.fau.edu/hboi/)