Possible antibiotics of the future from the depths of the sea

Possible antibiotics of the future from the depths of the sea

It is called the “twilight zone” because it is the column of water between 200 and 1000 meters below sea level, where the light becomes increasingly weaker, so weak that it does not allow plants to photosynthesize. Nonetheless, it teems with life: swordfish, squid, cuttlefish and many other creatures live and thrive in the twilight zone. Including some very interesting mushrooms, as a team of researchers from the Computational Bioscience Research Center (CBRC) to King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (Kaust), in Saudi Arabia, del Department of Marine Biology and Oceanography at the Spanish National Research Council (Csic), in Spain, and other institutes: scientists, in particular, have conducted the most extensive sequencing ever carried out so far of the DNA of ocean creatures, which revealed, precisely, the abundant presence of fungi that could have characteristics very similar to those that produce penicillin, one of the best-known and most important antibiotics in medicine, and which therefore could prove to be excellent candidates for the synthesis of new antibiotics. The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Science.

“Penicillin,” he recalled in an interview with Guardian Fabio FavorettoItalian marine biologist from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, “is an antibiotic that derives from a fungus called Penicillum, and we think we will find something similar also in the twilight zone of the oceans: it is a region characterized by high pressure, low light and low temperatures, i.e. a very extreme environment where fungi may have evolved unique adaptive characteristics. Which could potentially lead to the discovery of new species with previously unseen biochemical properties.” The study just published is a real catalog that contains the genetic groups relating to over 317 million marine species, extracted from samples collected in various expeditions: although the presence of fungi was already partially known, the authors said they were still surprised by observe them in such significant quantities.

Another of the scientists’ surprises was the discovery of the role of viruses in relation to the “explosion” of underwater biodiversity: “Viruses insert themselves into cells and ‘move’ genes from one organism to another”, he declared, again to the Guardian, Carlos Duerte, first author of the study, “In this way they contribute to genomic biodiversity and accelerate evolutionary processes: one of the results of this acceleration, for example, is the ability of some organisms to ‘chew’ plastic. Many of them are able to digest polymers, substances that have been present in the oceans for a relatively short time: this gives us an idea of ​​how fast this evolutionary process is.”

But let’s go back to mushrooms and their potential. In their work, the scientists analyzed the genetic material using a supercomputer and using algorithms to “fill the holes” in the unrecovered genomic sequences: in this way, they discovered that more than half of all genetic groups isolated in the twilight zone belong with mushrooms, precisely. And perhaps something good could come from this incredible wealth of fungi: “The genes and proteins deriving from marine microbes,” Duerte said, “have potentially many applications. We could try to use them for new antibiotics, or look for new enzymes for producing food. If they know what they are looking for, researchers can use our ‘atlas’ to look for the needle in the haystack needed to solve their specific problem.”

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