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Shipworms pulled from underwater forest that grew 60,000 years ago could be used to make antibiotics – Daily Mail


An underwater forest 60 feet below the surface in the Gulf of Mexico may be harboring life-saving secrets.

Researchers found that shipworms and other marine organisms living in tree trunks that grew nearly 60,000 years ago could be used to design new pharmaceuticals.

The shipworms pulled from the depths were found to be ‘stuffed full of biosynthetic pathways’, which are conducive to drug development.

More than 300 marine animals were removed from the wood and the team identified 100 strains of bacteria that could potentially pioneer new drug treatments.

Shipworm bacteria has been used to develop at least one antibiotic, and scientists are hopeful that the tiny creatures could produce much more in the future. 

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An underwater forest 60 feet below the surface in the Gulf of Mexico may be harboring life-saving secrets. Researchers found that shipworms and other marine organisms living in tree trunks that grew nearly 60,000 years ago could be used to design new pharmaceuticals

An underwater forest 60 feet below the surface in the Gulf of Mexico may be harboring life-saving secrets. Researchers found that shipworms and other marine organisms living in tree trunks that grew nearly 60,000 years ago could be used to design new pharmaceuticals

The ancient forest is believed to have grown nearly 60,000 years ago and was unearthed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

It sits just 15 miles off the coast, some 60 feet beneath the surface – but, it remained concealed beneath the mud and sand for thousands of years.

With the unmistakable shape of cypress knees, intact bark, and sap still leaking from the wood, it’s believed the ancient trees spent millennia buried under the thick sediment, protected from decomposition  

‘Everything is in place in that ecosystem,’ said LSU Department of Geography & Anthropology Associate Professor Kristine DeLong in a documentary ‘The Underwater Forest’ by AL.com journalist Ben Raines, was discovered after fishermen noticed unusual activity in the area.

‘It’s just been buried and preserved through time.’

More than 300 marine animals were removed from the wood and the team identified 100 strains of bacteria that could potentially pioneer new drug treatments. Shipworm bacteria has been used to develop at least one antibiotic, and scientists are hopeful that the tiny creatures could produce much more in the future

More than 300 marine animals were removed from the wood and the team identified 100 strains of bacteria that could potentially pioneer new drug treatments. Shipworm bacteria has been used to develop at least one antibiotic, and scientists are hopeful that the tiny creatures could produce much more in the future

Now, a team from Northeastern University and the University of Utah is analyzing shipworms and other marine animals pulled from the underwater forest, which they believe contain compounds for medicine and biotechnology.

The team’s focus is on bacteria found in wood-eating ‘shipworms,’ a group of saltwater clams with long, soft, naked bodies (teredinid bivalve), according to NOAA.  

NOAA released new footage of the underwater area earlier this week and the team expects to publish its first results from the trip within the next few months.

The logs pulled from the depths support a range of lifeforms that scientists are collecting and examining.

Margo Haygood, a molecular biologist at the University of Utah, told Vice: ‘We picked apart the wood more or less splinter by splinter and found all kinds of creatures in those samples, but there will certainly be more beyond what we have discovered.’

Researchers found the shipworms found in a trunk (pictured) are 'stuffed full of biosynthetic pathways' that are conducive to drug development, Haygood said

Researchers found the shipworms found in a trunk (pictured) are ‘stuffed full of biosynthetic pathways’ that are conducive to drug development, Haygood said

Drug compounds produced by symbiotic microbes are less likely to display toxicity toward animals than free-living bacteria, as these molecules have essentially been 'pre-screened' by their animal hosts

Drug compounds produced by symbiotic microbes are less likely to display toxicity toward animals than free-living bacteria, as these molecules have essentially been ‘pre-screened’ by their animal hosts

More than 300 animals were removed from the wood, photographed and identified last December.

Some were preserved as voucher specimens for future DNA analyses while others were used to create culture plates to sample for microbes.

Within 100 to 200 prepared culture plates, the team identified approximately 100 strains of bacteria, many of which are novel and 12 of which are already undergoing DNA sequencing for further study of their identity and their biosynthetic potential to make new drugs.     

Drug compounds produced by symbiotic microbes are less likely to display toxicity toward animals than free-living bacteria, as these molecules have essentially been ‘pre-screened’ by their animal hosts. 

They can be reproduced under lower temperatures and less harsh conditions than current industrial processes, meaning a potential cost savings for industrial applications.      

The shipworms have a unique digestive process that allows them to breakdown cellulose material found in trees and bacteria in their gills that create an enzyme that turns wood into sugars.

Haygood and her team further investigated the process and found the tiny creatures are  ‘stuffed full of biosynthetic pathways’ that are conducive to drug development, Haygood said, according to Vice. 

The remarkable condition of the ancient forest is due to the presence of thick mud, which prevented oxygen from reaching the dead wood.

Without oxygen, decomposition cannot take place in the underwater environment, the documentary explains.

Researhcers collected the first samples from the site, working with scientists from Louisiana State University and the University of Southern Mississippi for subsequent investigations.

Scientists investigating the graveyard of giant trees just off the coast of Alabama estimate the forest dates back to an ice age roughly 60,000 years ago, when the climate was cold and windy, and neared full glacial conditions – and sea levels were about 400 feet lower than they are today

Scientists investigating the graveyard of giant trees just off the coast of Alabama estimate the forest dates back to an ice age roughly 60,000 years ago, when the climate was cold and windy, and neared full glacial conditions – and sea levels were about 400 feet lower than they are today

The ancient forest sits just 15 miles off the coast, some 60 feet beneath the surface – but, it remained concealed beneath the mud and sand for thousands of years

The ancient forest sits just 15 miles off the coast, some 60 feet beneath the surface – but, it remained concealed beneath the mud and sand for thousands of years

And, with advanced sonar machines, the researchers discovered even more trees, buried upwards of 10 feet beneath the sediment.

By collecting core samples and radio-carbon dating the wood, the experts estimate the forest lived about 50,000-60,000 years ago.

Samples dried and cut in the lab also revealed another astonishing relic – ancient sap, tens of thousands of years old.

Hidden 60 feet beneath the surface in the Gulf of Mexico, scientists have discovered an underwater forest of ancient cypress trees, still rooted in the ground in which they grew more than 50,000 years ago

The underwater forest likely lay undisturbed until 2004, the experts explain, when the powerful category 4 storm Hurricane Ivan swept through the region, bringing 140 mile per hour winds and 98-foot-tall waves

Hidden 60 feet beneath the surface in the Gulf of Mexico, scientists have discovered an underwater forest of ancient cypress trees, still rooted in the ground in which they grew more than 50,000 years ago

According to the experts, the trees show signs of ‘stress events,’ indicating that they experienced rapid decrease in growth, followed by rapid increase, and then a final swift growth decline.

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Then, it appears ‘all the trees died about the same time,’ DeLong notes in the documentary.

The underwater forest likely lay undisturbed until 2004, the experts explain, when the powerful category 4 storm Hurricane Ivan swept through the region, bringing 140 mile per hour winds and 98-foot-tall waves.

The remarkable site, revealed in a new documentary ‘The Underwater Forest’ by AL.com journalist Ben Raines, was discovered after fishermen noticed unusual activity in the area

The remarkable site, revealed in a new documentary ‘The Underwater Forest’ by AL.com journalist Ben Raines, was discovered after fishermen noticed unusual activity in the area

With advanced sonar machines, the researchers discovered even more trees, buried upwards of 10 feet beneath the sediment

By collecting core samples and radio-carbon dating the wood, the experts estimate the forest lived about 50,000-60,000 years ago

With advanced sonar machines, the researchers discovered even more trees, buried upwards of 10 feet beneath the sediment. By collecting core samples and radio-carbon dating the wood, the experts estimate the forest lived about 50,000-60,000 years ago

Samples dried and cut in the lab also revealed another astonishing relic – ancient sap, tens of thousands of years old, as seen above

Samples dried and cut in the lab also revealed another astonishing relic – ancient sap, tens of thousands of years old, as seen above

As the storm passed directly over the site, it removed some of the mud that had hidden the ancient trees for so long.

Not only does the discovery tell the story of a world that existed eons ago, but the experts say it could provide a glimpse into the future of the Gulf coast, in the face of a changing climate.

The remarkable condition of the ancient forest is due to the presence of thick mud, which prevented oxygen from reaching the dead wood. Without oxygen, decomposition cannot take place in the underwater environment, the documentary explains

The remarkable condition of the ancient forest is due to the presence of thick mud, which prevented oxygen from reaching the dead wood. Without oxygen, decomposition cannot take place in the underwater environment, the documentary explains

‘It’s pretty rapid change, geologically speaking,’ paleontologist Martin Becker, with William Paterson University, told AL.com.

‘We’re looking at 60 feet of seawater where a forest used to be. I’m looking at a lot of development, of people’s shore homes and condominiums, etc.

‘The forest is predicting the future, and maybe a pretty unpleasant one.’

According to the experts, the trees show signs of 'stress events,' indicating that they experienced rapid decrease in growth, followed by rapid increase, and then a final swift growth decline. Then, it appears 'all the trees died about the same time'

According to the experts, the trees show signs of ‘stress events,’ indicating that they experienced rapid decrease in growth, followed by rapid increase, and then a final swift growth decline. Then, it appears ‘all the trees died about the same time’



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