A newly-discovered antibiotic chemical found in the tissue of a Caribbean Sea whip is being used to treat aggressive, drug-resistant TB. Even better, scientists have learned how to recreate it in the lab, so we can produce it on mass.

Sea Whips

The ocean is pretty cool. Not only is it the largest and most mysterious body of water, it is also home to a multitude of ethereal beings posing as marine wildlife. One such creature that is taken seemingly straight from a fantasy world is the sea whip. Also known as sea plumes, sea whips are part of the coral family, soft in stature, with long feathery appendages. They look a lot more like plants than the ancient animals that they actually are. Their violet polyp-covered branchlets gently sway in the sea currents, carrying out a perfectly freestyled twirling number.

There are many sea whips scattered across our ocean floor, with some of the most beautiful species’ water dancing in the warm waters of the Caribbean. These tropical whips are unlike their greater ocean relatives in that they are made up of some pretty unique chemical compounds. The particular whip responsible for causing this out-of-water stir is the species, Antillogorgia elisabethae. Specifically, this Caribbean whip species contains a set of chemical compounds not found anywhere else in the world. Maybe it’s the hotter temperatures and balmy sea breeze, but the compounds within these whips are extremely rare and valuable to scientists. This is because they house some hard-to-find analgesics (i.e., natural painkillers) and anti-inflammatory bodies (like pseudopterosin) that are widely used in the medicinal and cosmetic industry.

In addition to these helpful sea whip elements, the most astounding find has been the presence of erogorgiaene, which is a powerful compound with the potential to treat tuberculosis (TB). A strange and unrelated aside is that the chemical has previously been used to clean fish tanks and aquariums. Since the discovery that the compounds were capable of much more than being cleaners their entire ashore days, scientists have been working hard to extract it from the soft corals. Turning it into a readily-available compound that does not mean harmful extraction to the coral ecosystems has been a top priority alongside transforming it into an intact medication.

New Drug on the Block

Harvesting of the sea whips is not only difficult because of their natural habitat but it is also rather pricey. Trumping these two challenges is the fact that harvesting also causes environmental damage to surrounding corals and communities that the sea whips live in. Thanks to the hard work of scientists at the Technical University of Munich, new research has revealed a sustainable and cost-effective biotechnological harvesting technique. The technique has already been trialed and successfully used to recreate one of the compounds from the sea whip that is heavily applied in the treatment of tuberculosis (TB). Why this finding is so important is because many forms of TB have developed over time to be drug-resistant, making treatment extremely challenging, painful, and drawn out. By recreating the chemical compound in the lab, not only does it preserve the natural environment and save on costly treatments, but it also means a greater number of patients will be cured.

Conservation of the Whip

Unfortunately, as with many of our underwater animal kingdom members, the sea whip is not completely free for all to fish and harvest. Presently, there are bubbling concerns over potential overfishing and overharvesting of the sea whip species in the Caribbean. The concerns are not unfounded if we take into consideration the extent to which they are currently collected and the rate at which they are sold as dry corals. Because of the heavy harvesting of sea whips in the region, the Caribbean now protects all sea whips along its coasts. In addition to harming the corals and their surrounding communities, the process of extraction from these marine animals also leaves quite a bit of toxic waste that needs to be taken care of. Hence why scientists were logging serious hours trying to determine if the chemical could be recreated. It has become pivotal to medical science that they do not do additional harm in the pursuit of healing.

The Munich research team managed to do just that: work out a method that could both contribute significantly to science while not damaging the marine environment. They developed a technique that allowed the replication of eorgorgiaene in the lab using a relatively new biotechnology approach. The technique involves feeding genetically-optimized bacteria with glycerin, a byproduct from biodiesel production. This feeding results in a molecule being generated that acts as a precursor for the eorgorgiaene compound. From there, they were able to convert the compound into a specialized active agent through a highly-selective enzymatic process. This technique means that the entire process of creation is completely sustainable, with absolutely zero harmful waste products. If all of these chemical reactions floated your boat, head over to the team’s scientific paper that details it further. The team is currently awaiting approval on a patent to get the chemical compounds out of the lab and into active treatments.

Future Drug Use

Thanks to the efforts of the Munich research team, the drug will soon be used in treatment applications for drug-resistant TB, which is currently a big challenge in South America, southern Africa, and most of India. Not only is this an astounding step for the medical science industry, the researchers believe that a similar process could be used to extract further valuable compounds from the sea whip species. Early science suggests that the anti-inflammatory pseudopterosin could be used to treat a range of viral infections including the coronavirus. This development is an exciting step for marine scientists as it means a variety of species can now be safely tested without the threat of unnecessary environmental harm.

The true wonder in findings such as this highlights the intricate value in healthy functioning marine ecosystems, further underpinning the importance of protecting and conserving our oceans. When safely explored, the ocean can be a treasure trove for the medicine industry.