for National Geographic News
The thousands of oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico may soon become a source for blockbuster drugs, researchers say.
"They are all very, very rich in organisms" that could provide ingredients for powerful pharmaceuticals, said Lawrence Rouse, the director of the Coastal Marine Institute at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
At least 3,500 oil platforms mine the seafloor beneath the northern Gulf of Mexico and are responsible for about a quarter of U.S. energy production, according to the federal Minerals Management Service.
The platforms are essentially artificial reefs, allowing researchers to collect unique organisms without harming natural reefs. (Related: "Artificial Reefs Made With Sunken Subway Cars, Navy Ships" [August 2006].)
Several years ago Rouse and his colleagues looked for undiscovered species by collected algae, bacteria, barnacles, and other creatures from a cross-section of deep and shallow water platforms.
New species may produce chemical compounds for their survival that could also benefit humans, such as painkillers or toxins that kill cancer cells.
The team is unable to discuss the particulars of their findings because some of their patent applications are pending. But Rouse said project biologists have identified "a significant number of unique bacteria."
(Rouse described the project today in a broadcast of the Pulse of the Planet radio program. This news story and Pulse of the Planet are funded in part by the National Science Foundation.)
Amy Wright is director of the Division of Biomedical Marine Research at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce, Florida.
She and her colleagues are working on several compounds from deepwater sponges that may have anticancer properties.
But she says it is too early to tell when the compounds will be available to the general publicif ever.
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