National Geographic News
As leads for new drugs on land dry up, medicine hunters are plunging into the ocean in search of the next blockbuster pharmaceutical.
Harvesting ocean organisms for medicinal purposes—called marine bioprospecting—has accelerated in recent years as scientists seek new antibiotics and cancer treatments.
"Bottom line, the marine microbial environment is very rich, because it's never been exploited before," said Kobi Sethna, president of the small biotech company Nereus Pharmaceuticals, which specializes in marine microbes.
Though the blue part of the planet was largely ignored during the drug rush of the past half century, it's a natural place to look, experts say.
Of the 36 known phyla—a taxonomic rank below kingdom—17 occur on land and 34 live in the ocean, making the seas "by far the highest biodiversity environment on the planet," said William Fenical, distinguished professor of oceanography and pharmaceutical science at University of California, San Diego.
"It would be difficult to overlook such a massive resource for chemical diversity and drug discovery," Fenical said.
Close to 25 drugs derived from marine life—such as bacteria, sponges, and tunicates—are currently in clinical trials.
In 1928, British bacteriologist Sir Andrew Fleming realized that a rare spore of fungus—Pencillium notatum—had floated from another lab through the air and landed in his culture plate of bacteria, killing some of it.
That early discovery of what would become the widespread antibiotic penicillin spurred an intensified effort to explore Earth's forests and wild places, which have proven to be repositories for some of today's major drug advances.
Fifty percent of drugs made for humans are derived in some way from nature, Fenical said.
But by the 1970s, scientists had realized that terrestrial microorganisms had been thoroughly explored, prompting a few early "pioneers" to turn their gaze seaward, Fenical said.
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