A new technique by researchers in Germany allows for a special antibiotic compound in sea whips to be re-created without the need for harvesting or destroying the soft corals it is found in. In addition to helping treat multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, this process could also be used to create other useful medicines.
Sea whips (also known as sea plumes) are soft corals with long feathery appendages, which look more like plants than the colonial animals they really are. One particular sea whip found in the Caribbean, Antillogorgia elisabethae, has been found to contain a number of useful chemical compounds with uses in both medicine and cosmetics. Unfortunately to harvest them is both expensive and environmentally damaging to the coral reef communities they are a part of. However new research, by scientists from the Technical University of Munich (TUM), could be about to change that with a new cost-effective and totally sustainable biotechnology technique. They have already used it to successfully re-create one of the sea whip’s drugs, shown to be able to help fight multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, and hope it can be used to create even more soon.
Sea whip compounds
Antrillogorgia elisabethae are one of several sea whip species found in the Caribbean, but unlike their relatives they contain some extremely useful and highly valuable chemical compounds. These include analgesics used in painkillers and pseudopterosin, an anti-inflammatory which has been used in the cosmetic industry for years. However the most important is erogorgiaene, which in the past has been use to clean fish-tanks in the aquarium industry, but has recently been shown to be a potential treatment for multi-drug resistant tuberculosis. Since this discovery scientists have been looking for a way to extract erogorgiaene from the soft corals, to turn it into a proper medicine.
The trouble is that these sea whips are now a protected species in the Caribbean. This is because the valuable compounds within their tissues has previously caused them to be targeted by local fishermen, who can sell the dried out corals for a high price. Whilst they are not currently under threat, there are fears that harvesting them will have significant knock-on effects in coral reef communities which are already struggling from impacts such as coral bleaching and the lionfish invasion in the Caribbean. The process of extracting erogorgiaene from them is also extremely time consuming, expensive and produces toxic waste products. So researchers have instead been working on a way to re-create the chemical compound without having to damage or destroy the sea whips.
Now a team of researchers from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) in Germany has re-created eorgorgiaene in the laboratory using a new biotechnology technique. It involves using genetically optimized bacteria that feed on glycerine, a residual substance from biodiesel production. This generates a molecule which acts as a pre-cursor to eorgorgiaene and can then be converted into the desired active agent using a highly selective enzymatic step. Not only does this allow for the compound to be created without the use of sea whips, it also has no waste products so is completely sustainable and can be achieved for around a third of the price. The full chemical process is laid out in their new scientific paper and is currently awaiting approval on a patent that would allow it to be used commercially.
The most obvious benefit of being able to re-produce eorgorgiaene in a sustainable and cost-effective way is that it could now be used to help fight multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, which is currently a big problem in South America, Southern Africa and India. However the researchers also believe they could use the same process to extract other chemicals from A. elisabethae such as the anti-inflammatory pseudopterosin, which outside of its use in cosmetics could also be used in treating viral infections including COVID-19. It is also hoped that this type of biotechnology work can also help re-create lots of other valuable chemical compounds from other marine species too.
All of this highlights just how valuable healthy and functioning marine ecosystems are and why it is so important to keep exploring our oceans, because there are countless more medicines, chemicals and other naturally occurring products still waiting to be found.