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EU Launches $12M Project to Search Deep Sea Trenches for Bioactive Compounds

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – A consortium of European research partners will use €9.5 million ($12.3 million) from the EU to trawl the trenches of the deep seas in search of organisms that could be used to develop bioactive compounds for treating diseases and for nutritional and cosmetic applications.

Led by researchers at the University of Aberdeen and the University of Leuven, the 24 PharmSea initiative partners from 14 countries will collect and screen mud and sediment samples from deep oceanic trenches to discover those compounds, KU Leuven said today.

Organisms that live in trenches more than 6,000 meters under the sea surface may offer a rich source of new compounds because they survive under extreme conditions, and because they have evolved in isolation from sea life closer to the surface and from organisms in other trenches.

With the help of outside partners from around the world, PharmaSea will launch its first field tests next autumn in the Atacama Trench, and will continue to search in Arctic waters off Norway, in the Antarctic, and in trenches off New Zealand and China.

The partners will collect samples from as far down as nine kilometers below sea level and aim to create small-molecule libraries from the organisms isolated from the samples. They then will conduct biological screening of those extracts. In the pharmaceutical area, the partners hope to identify and develop compounds that could be used as drug leads for treating inflammation, infectious diseases, and central nervous system disorders.

KU Leuven Senior Scientist Alex Crawford said his lab will focus on developing bioassays and screening processes based on zebrafish to develop behavioral footprints of these organisms.

"In a first phase of screening, we will observe what zebrafish larvae do in the presence of the various deep sea extracts. By flashing a burst of light to trigger a startle response, we are able determine whether a given deep sea extract is associated with an atypical photo-motor response. If so, that extract is identified as having a neuroactive behavioural footprint and is set aside for further testing," Crawford said in a statement.

His lab hopes that "an appreciable number" of extracts will show neuroactivity during this screening, and then they will seek to identify which molecule is active in those extracts.

"Neuroactive extracts go on to a secondary, disease-specific screening and then undergo a 'fractionation' process. These fractions are then re-tested for neuroactivity and active fractions are separated down to the molecular level using methods like microfractionation, mass spectrometry, and NMR spectroscopy," said Crawford.

The partners hope in particular to discover novel compounds that could be developed into new antibiotics and into seizure-inhibiting drugs for treating epilepsy patients.