DRUGS FROM SEAWEED?
Plants have no immune systems. Chemical warfare is their way of fighting pathogens and parasites: they manufacture compounds that prevent the growth of specific disease-causing microorganisms. And sometimes those compounds are effective against human pathogens as well—the basis for much pharmacological research as well as traditional medicine, and many exhortations to preserve biodiversity.
Julia Kubanek, a biochemist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, and her colleagues at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, suggest that seaweed could be similarly tapped for future drugs. Marine plants literally live in a sea of bacteria, archaea, viruses, and fungi—some of which are bound to be pathogenic—yet they seldom get sick. Surprisingly little is known about seaweed's chemical defenses, but Kubanek and her team have begun to remedy that deficiency.
From the brown alga Lobophora variegata—a tropical seaweed especially dominant in the Caribbean—the investigators have isolated a potent new compound they call lobophorolide. In laboratory tests, small quantities of it stunted the growth of two marine fungi that cause disease in marine plants.
Nevertheless, lobophorolide had no effect on a pathogenic bacterium, and did not repel herbivorous fishes. Kubanek and her team think other compounds may pick up where this one leaves off. Algae may turn out to be underwater pharmacies, deploying a variety of medicines, each aimed at a different affliction.
Natural History – September 2003
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