Deep-sea sponges – the future of antimicrobials? - News & Features

17 August 2017
Deep-sea sponges – the future of antimicrobials?

Marine sponges and the deep-sea ecosystem are comparatively under-studied and under-exploited compared with life in shallower waters – but a team of scientists from the University of Plymouth are identifying and developing potential new antimicrobials produced by the microbiome of sponges which live deep beneath the ocean surface.

The work attracted the attention of the Society for Applied Microbiology which awarded a PhD studentship to support the project. Mr Matthew Koch will join the team of medical microbiology and marine ecology scientists which is led by Dr Mathew Upton and which includes Dr Kerry Howell, Dr Al Bishop and Dr Phil Warburton.

Urgent need

Together, they will develop new methods of microbial cultivation, apply them to unique samples from a source rich in bioactive molecules, and identify urgently-needed new antimicrobials. Dr Kerry Howell commented: “the deep-sea is the least explored part of our planet, but may hold the key to solving some of our most pressing medical challenges.”

The team are already making headway – Dr Matthew Upton and colleague Dr Kerry Howell have cultured more than 100 novel bacterial strains from deep-sea sponges, some of which have produced antimicrobials that can kill MRSA.

Bioactive molecules

As well as screening for potential antimicrobials, the team will also be on the look-out for other potential applications in the areas of cancer, immune deficiency and wound healing.

Dr Mathew Upton commented: “We believe that deep-sea sponges contain diverse populations of new cultivable and non-cultivable bacteria. These represent a substantial uncharacterised and untapped source of bioactive molecules which could help meet the urgent need for new antimicrobials and have other health benefit applications.”

He added: “As well as aiming to find new sources of potential therapies for human health issues, we also believe that by breaking new ground our methods will be of use to other scientists around the world operating in similar areas of research. Our sincere thanks go to the Society for Applied Microbiology for three years’ of support for Matthew Koch, who will be a valuable member of our team and help us achieve our research goals.”

Currently, it is estimated that around 50,000 people are already dying each year in Europe and the US from antibiotic resistant infections, according to Lord O’Neill’s Review on Antimicrobial Resistance.

In the UK alone, at least 12,000 people die from antibiotic-resistant superbugs each year, which is higher than deaths from breast cancer.