"Basically no research has been done on the biomedical potential of Gulf of Mexico deep-sea resources," says John Reed, Harbor Branch's mission coordinator for the Division of Biomedical Marine Research (DBMR).
The expedition is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Ocean Exploration program. It will bring Harbor Branch scientists, co-led by Reed, Dr. Amy Wright, director of DBMR and Dr. Shirley Pomponi, the institution's vice president and director of research, from the southwest tip of Florida north toward the panhandle off the coast of Alabama. The research team will explore a broad range of habitats to find new marine organisms that produce compounds with pharmaceutical potential as well as to document the Gulf's rich biodiversity.
This exploration will focus on hard bottom areas of the Gulf seafloor. These include pinnacles of Lophelia coral that jut up to 500 feet from the sea floor in some areas, coldwater seeps where oil and gas bubble up from the bottom to support unique organisms, and sinkholes most likely formed by seepage of freshwater out of aquifers beneath the seafloor. Most of such sites are situated along an ancient limestone ledge, which runs parallel to Florida's west coast and was once the shoreline 15,000 years ago before sea level rose to its current state.
The team will also be the first to explore the deep reaches of some of the decommissioned oil rigs scattered throughout the Gulf to learn what organisms live there. Studies of shallow areas of platforms have suggested that they are oases of marine life. During the mission, researchers hope to catalog the diversity of organisms on two of these man-made leviathans at depths as great as 1,000 feet as well as collect any new species anchored there. Although oil companies are required to remove these old platforms, legislation currently being considered could allow them to remain in place as artificial reefs to support corals, marine sponges and other sea life.
During the expedition, scientists will run a range of tests on samples of animals such as sponges, sea urchins, sea fans, tube worms, soft corals and associated microbes collected. For instance, chemicals from each sample will be extracted and their ability to kill bacteria and fungi will be examined as an indicator of their therapeutic potential. The number and amount of chemicals produced by individual animals will also be analyzed using shipboard equipment and genetic material from the organisms will be extracted and preserved for later study at Harbor Branch. In addition, a portion of each specimen collected will be frozen for further examination after the mission is over by Harbor Branch and its research partners to further explore the pharmaceutical potential of the samples.
"I expect to find new organisms that we have never encountered before on any of our other trips," says Dr. Pomponi, because so much of the Gulf of Mexico remains unexplored.
Past Harbor Branch drug discovery work has taken researchers from sites relatively close to home in the Atlantic and Caribbean to as far away as Australia and the Seychelles. Two important discoveries from these past missions are discodermolide, an anti-cancer agent now in human trials, and topsentin, an anti-inflammatory agent. Both are derived from marine sponges. During the Gulf cruise scientists will also try to collect a marine sponge called Forcepia to further their studies on a promising anti-cancer compound the organism produces.
This is the second consecutive year the Ocean Exploration program has supported Harbor Branch expeditions. The innovative program was created in response to a report by a presidential panel that outlined the great potential of the largely unexplored oceans for human discovery.
Unlike most Harbor Branch drug discovery cruises, the Gulf expedition will not use the institution's ships and submersibles. Instead, the mission will be supported by the NOAA ship RONALD H. BROWN and a specially-outfitted remotely operated vehicle (ROV) owned and operated by SonSub, based in Houston. The ROV, called the Innovator, was designed for oil-related work and can descend nearly 10,000 feet. The team expects to make three ROV dives each day, for a daily total of about nine hours on the bottom collecting sea life. In addition, with its high-tech video and still-photo capabilities, the Innovator will allow scientists to record the habitats and biodiversity of marine areas never before observed.
Besides research, an important component of this mission will be educating the public through live at-sea web logs, associated lesson plans for grades K-12, and other information about the cruise that will appear on NOOA's Ocean Explorer Website. Educator Gary Wolfe, of Eau Gallie High School in Melbourne, Fla., will be participating in the mission. Daily dispatches and classroom activity guides will give young scientists the chance to experience life on a research vessel and learn about amazing treasures beneath the sea.
The Harbor Branch mission is the first segment of a three-leg Ocean Exploration cruise. After the team disembarks, other groups of researchers will complete studies in other parts of the Gulf of Mexico. For the first leg, the research vessel is scheduled to leave St. Petersburg on Sept. 8th and return on the 19th to Panama City, Fla.
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