The twilight zone of the ocean may hold potential for the discovery of a new penicillin-like medication derived from fungi.
A significant amount of fungi have been discovered inhabiting the ocean’s twilight zone, potentially leading to the discovery of powerful drugs similar to penicillin.
The biggest investigation of marine DNA to date, conducted by the journal Frontiers in Science, has uncovered interesting discoveries regarding the prevalence of fungi in the deep ocean, where sunlight cannot penetrate. This area, known as the twilight zone, spans from 200 to 1,000 meters below the surface and is inhabited by a diverse range of creatures and organisms, including uniquely adapted fish like lantern sharks and kitefin sharks, which possess large eyes and luminous skin due to bioluminescence.
Fabio Favoretto, a postdoctoral scholar at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, mentioned that the antibiotic Penicillin was originally derived from a fungus called Penicillium. He believes that similar findings could potentially be made from ocean fungi, as they thrive in the challenging conditions of the twilight zone – high pressure, low light, and cold temperatures. This environment may prompt fungi to develop unique adaptations, which could potentially lead to the discovery of new species with distinct biochemical properties.
The recently released ocean DNA database, unveiled on Tuesday, contains over 317 million gene groups from various marine organisms. These samples were gathered during several voyages, including the four-year Tara Oceans expedition that began in 2009 and the 2010 Malaspina Circumnavigation expedition.
According to Elisa Laiolo, a marine biologist and lead author of the paper, advancements in technology have allowed for existing samples to yield a greater amount of data compared to before. Additionally, the process of cataloguing has played a key role in uncovering new insights about the understudied ocean.
The oceanic biotechnology industry, which is dependent on marine organisms and their genetic material, is valued at approximately $6 billion and is predicted to nearly double by 2032.
Laiolo was amazed by the abundance of fungi in the twilight zone of the ocean. “There were previous indications of this [high levels of fungi], so this adds another clue to the puzzle.”
Carlos Duarte, a professor of marine science and the senior author of the study, revealed another significant finding that emerged while cataloguing. According to Duarte, viruses play a crucial role in increasing gene diversity. He explains, “Viruses insert themselves and transfer genes from one organism to another. This process creates genomic biodiversity and speeds up their evolution.”
According to him, a consequence of this increase in speed was the development of genes that allowed living beings to break down plastic. These organisms are able to break down man-made materials, made from hydrocarbons, which have only recently become a major pollutant in the ocean. This demonstrates that evolution occurred within a short period of time.
According to Laiolo, the catalogue revealed deficiencies in our knowledge of the ocean floor. He noted that it is simpler to collect water samples than to explore the ocean floor, and emphasized the importance of conducting more research on the seabed in the future.
According to her, advancements in supercomputing and sequencing techniques have made it possible to extract more data from existing samples at a significantly reduced cost.
Duarte stated that while the catalogue had advantages, there were issues regarding the ownership of marine genes and the distribution of benefits. This was especially problematic for nations in the global south who did not have equal access to gene sequencing and advanced computer analysis. According to Duarte, only 10 countries currently hold 90% of marine gene patents, resulting in a lack of sharing of benefits.
Modifications are being implemented to the regulations on ownership. According to Duarte, “A new agreement has been in effect since October of last year, stating that whoever uncovers a marine gene has the rights to it.” However, they are required to divide the advantages with others. The issue is that the specifics of this benefit sharing arrangement are not yet defined.
Marine scientists were pleased with the release of the catalogue. Favoretto praised it as an exceptional tool for assessing and preserving biodiversity, allowing researchers to track changes in species distribution, specifically in response to climate change and human actions.