(Credit Linda Homewood)
By Alton Parrish
In a race against time, University of Florida marine researchers are hurrying to collect underwater marine algae samples in the Florida Keys while an ever-growing Gulf oil spill steadily migrates toward Florida, already reaching the Emerald Coast in the Panhandle.
Hendrik Luesch, an associate professor of medicinal chemistry at UF College of Pharmacy took his research team to Long Key last week in hopes of advancing early drug discoveries that may yield cancer-fighting properties hidden in marine algae. It’s an expedition he has made annually for four years, but this year it seems there might be a limit on how long the ecosystem will yield its specimens.
According to federal and independent scientists, as much as 2.5 million gallons of oil per day are spewing from a pipe in the Gulf of Mexico that engineers have failed to seal.
“Cyanobacteria, or organisms that overgrow coral reefs, are shown to produce drug-like compounds that may be exploited for biomedical purposes such as anti-cancer drugs,” Luesch said.
The warm waters and mild year-round temperatures allow marine life to flourish in the Keys, creating a predatory environment among these organisms, Luesch said. In order to survive, marine organisms develop defense systems, sort of like a chemical survival kit. Researchers use these toxic chemicals as the basis for creating drugs that can target and fight cancers.
“It’s the biodiversity that makes the Florida Keys a hot spot for researchers,” Luesch said.
At the same time, the coral reefs are also a very sensitive ecosystem, he said. For example, the extended chill in the tropical waters last January caused sea turtles to become cold-stunned and killed more than 85 percent of reefs in certain areas, according to Cynthia Lewis, a biological scientist at the Keys Marine Laboratory in Long Key, where the UF researchers collected specimens.
Scientists in Florida don’t know what to expect, she said.
“We are concerned and watchful,” she said. “We don’t know how far the marine impact may go.”