What Raines found on the floor of the Gulf were the remains of a massive cypress forest that had been growing during a long-ago previous Ice Age, when the coastal shoreline was much further South than it is now. Scientists don’t mean the last great Ice Age, about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.
That Ice Age has been well studied. A few trees, perhaps about 1,000 years old have been found off the coast of England and a few other locations, but they grew in a world we have studied and understand.
Researchers at Louisiana State University and the University of Southern Mississippi sent wood and sediment samples to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California for radiocarbon dating, only to discover the forest was 50,000 to 60,000 years old.
LSU geological oceanographer, Dr. Kristine DeLong says the forest that stood long ago looks very similar to those found in the Atchafalaya Basin, located in south-central Louisiana. The basin is best known for its cypress-tupelo swamps – representing the largest remaining contiguous tract of coastal cypress in the United States.
Unlocking the forest’s secrets
Today, a team of scientists from Northeastern University and the University of Utah, funded by the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (OER), are working to unlock the ancient forest’s secrets, including its potential to harbor new compounds for medicine and biotechnology.
Margo Haygood, a molecular biologist at the University of Utah is part of the team searching for biotechnologies and medical applications within the microbes of this underwater forest ecosystem. In December 2019, the researchers embarked on an expedition to the forest on the research vessel E.O. Wilson, and expect to publish their research in the next few months.
So how can a 60,000-year-old forest help scientists in finding new medicines? Haygood says that like trees growing on land today, the underwater forest is home to a diversity of lifeforms, just waiting for scientists to collect them and examine in the laboratory.
“We picked apart the wood more or less splinter by splinter and found all kinds of creatures in those samples,” Haygood said, according to Vice, “but there will certainly be more beyond what we have discovered.”
Medicines from ancient trees
To show how successful the expedition was, according to NOAA, scientists recovered 300 animals from the trunks hauled out of the forest and identified about 100 bacteria strains in cultures from the forests, some of which are new to science. The most useful microorganisms for medical and pharmaceutical research tend to be organisms that form a symbiotic relationship with their host organisms.
“If you focus on the microbes that live in stable, benign associations with other organisms and you look at the chemicals that they produce, they have been preselected by hundreds of millions of years of evolution together to be potent, effective, and non-toxic,” Haygood explained. “They don’t make things that are poisonous to their hosts, they make things that may be useful to their hosts.”
Of the more than 300 animals that were removed from the wood, scientists were particularly focused on just one: a wood-eating “shipworm,” a type of clam (teredinid bivalve) that converts wood into animal tissue that is the base of a food chain that can support a rich diversity of fish, invertebrates, and microorganisms, according to CNN News.
“We were able to isolate bacteria from them and get some bacteria that we haven’t worked with before, so we’re really excited about that,” Haygood said. She added that 12 of the bacteria are undergoing DNA sequencing to evaluate their potential to make new drug treatments.
“We screened for antimicrobials and for neurological activity, which is in the direction of pain drugs as well as anti-cancer drugs,” Haygood said. “We have not been (working on antivirals) in the past, but right now my department at the University of Utah is spinning up to start including viral assays in the program.”
The importance of the prehistoric cypress forest cannot be underestimated, and it still has a lot of information to give us. Just think about it – this forest was growing on the banks of a river 60,000 years ago – as prehistoric humans just started venturing out of Africa.