Deep-Sea Coral Ecosystems May Hold Cancer Cures, But They Face Threats
By Holly Binns
To Shirley Pomponi the sea sponges lining her office shelves are more than colorful specimens; they're potentially lifesaving creatures, some of which could hold the complex secrets to cures for cancers and other diseases.
The marine biotechnology expert, who is research professor and executive director of the Cooperative Institute for Ocean Exploration, Research, and Technology at Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, has spent more than 30 years studying deep-sea sponges, simple organisms that are often found in coral ecosystems in all of the world's seas.
Sponges exist from the shallows close to shore to thousands of feet below the surface. Together with corals, they make up unique communities that have been barely studied but are natural disease fighters, which scientists believe hold important properties that already are producing treatments for some cancers.
Sponges and corals may appear primitive, Pomponi said, "But they have genes, proteins, and metabolic pathways that are similar to ours."
Tube sponges (Aiolochroia crassa) and corals share space in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico.NOAA
The medical promise of sponges and corals is a driving force behind efforts to conserve their valuable habitats, which are mainly threatened by damaging fishing gear, but also from oil and gas development, and changing ocean conditions. In the Gulf of Mexico, fishery managers are considering a proposal to safeguard coral and sponge hotspots by restricting damaging fishing gear, such as trawls, anchors, and bottom longlines, in up to 23 sites deemed a high priority for protection. (If you want to encourage managers to protect corals and sponges, sign our petition.)
Even with the deep sea's promise for human health solutions, scientists don't have plans to harvest corals and sponges for medical uses. Scientists would take samples that they could use to try to replicate in a lab the promising properties that sponges and corals produce in the wild.
"It would be economically and ecologically unrealistic to exploit these habitats, especially because corals and sponges provide habitat as well as feeding and breeding grounds for fish, crabs, shrimp and many other species," said Pomponi, who earned a doctorate in biological oceanography from the University of Miami in 1977 and became an expert on the hundreds of different species of sponges throughout the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.
Scientists have discovered a potent anti-cancer compound within the glass sponge Aphrocallistes beatrix.Shirley Pomponi
Sponges and Corals Are Natural Disease Fighters
Sponges have existed in the oceans for 600 million years, surviving through mass extinctions and severe environmental stresses.
Sponges can't move. To defend themselves they produce chemicals, some of which are shown to fight infection in humans, and further protect their territory by stopping other organisms' cells from dividing and taking over—similar to how drugs stop the spread of cancer.
In fact, said Pomponi, in more than 45 years of studying sponges she's never seen a tumor in one. "Somehow they make sure cancer cell precursors either repair themselves or die. What we can learn from that could mean a better understanding of how cancer develops in humans—and how we might even prevent it. We can not only tap into their arsenal of chemicals, but also their metabolic pathways for human health applications."
Shirley Pomponi carries a sponge in a bucket of seawater to the wet lab on board the University of Miami Research Vessel Walton Smith in the Gulf of Mexico in 2015. Pomponi retrieved the sample using the NMSF Mohawk remotely operated vehicle, operated by the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.Shirley Pomponi
Discoveries from sponges already have provided antibiotics and cancer drugs, and their skeletons are being studied to develop ways to grow bone for grafting and dental implants. Some species in the Gulf of Mexico are used in drugs to treat breast cancer. Scientists see similar potential in deep-sea corals, which also have existed for millions of years. Researchers have discovered that one type of gorgonian coral, also known as sea fans, contains powerful anti-inflammatory chemicals, some soft corals have potential anti-cancer and anti-viral properties, and bamboo corals may also be useful in bone grafting.
Shirley Pomponi rests next to the Mohawk remotely operated vehicle in the Gulf of Mexico in 2015. She regularly uses ROVs to explore deep-sea coral ecosystems.Shirley Pomponi
Human Activity Threatens to Erase Potential Cures
Pomponi's institute has been exploring the Gulf of Mexico and other parts of the world and researching marine-derived chemicals since 1984. Yet with much of the Gulf and the rest of the world's seas unexplored, the race is on between those seeking beneficial discoveries and the human activities that could destroy a potential cancer cure before it's discovered.
Pomponi says the Gulf's jewels have already been compromised. In one case, promising research on melanoma was slowed when scientists, seeking more samples of a key sponge, returned to where they had found it only to discover the area heavily damaged by trawls and the sponges gone. Scientists working on treatment for Alzheimer's disease encountered a similar situation—nearly obliterated habitat. Those researchers eventually got one small sample, after combing through 30,000 photos taken in the area to locate a still-viable specimen.
"We want to avoid a situation where the environment is damaged and some unique animal that produces a chemical that could cure cancer or other dreaded diseases is destroyed," Pomponi concludes. If these remarkable sea creatures aren't protected, she adds, "Who knows what we'll lose?"
Holly Binns directs The Pew Charitable Trusts' efforts to protect ocean life in the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S. South Atlantic Ocean, and the U.S. Caribbean.
The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.
"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."
The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.
They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.
They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.
But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.
"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.
What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.
It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.
To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.
First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.
Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.
University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.
"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."
Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.
"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.
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