The Thousands of Sponge Specimens of Harbor Branch and the Hope for a Cure, St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch and Nancy Higgs stand during a tour at Harbor Branch's sponge storage area.
Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch, and Nancy Higgs (former Brevard county commissioner) during a tour to Harbor Branch’s “sponge storage area for cancer research.” Nancy named the area, containing over 3500 specimens, “Spongeville.” Both women serve on the HBOIF board. (Photo by Dr Sheri Pomponi, 11-13-14.)

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…..

Sponges in my kitchen....
Sponges in my kitchen….

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.

Collection HBOI
Collection HBOI

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….

One of Harbor Branch's famous submersibles now on display.
One of Harbor Branch’s famous submersibles now on display.

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.

Dr Sheri Pomponi collected many of the specimens across our world's oceans.
Dr Sheri Pomponi collected many of the specimens across our world’s oceans for HBOI.
HBOI collecton
HBOI collection bottles.
HBOI collection
HBOI collection all labeled  by date, contents  and location.

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/)

2 thoughts on “The Thousands of Sponge Specimens of Harbor Branch and the Hope for a Cure, St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

  1. I am a volunteer at Gumbolimbo Nature Cntr. in Boca Raton (which is affiliated with the Marine Biology programs at FAU). From a marine science perspective, please explain what precautions have been taken to protect our natural marine resources now and in the future?

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    1. Hello Harris. This question is beyond my scope really but I would say government has planned and studied many things regarding marine resources but not implemented them enough … From 1987’s state of Florida’s SWIM ACT; to the 1990 IRL National Estuary Program the EPA and the state of Florida: to The 2009 St Lucie Watershed and Protection Plans through the state of Florida: to CERP/Everglades restoration with the State and Fed Govt. Some local projects and land purchases have helped but not enough to keep up with development and agricultures fast destructive pace. Unfortunately these “river” waterway projects are bogged down in bureaucracy and politics and not coming on line fast enough –also most of the public is out of the loop —-thus our waterways and their fish and wildlife are rapidly declining. (Google these programs listed above for more detailed info.) Thanks for your comment and I hope it helps some… You also may want to Google Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Ft Pierce they have done lots of research…..

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