Covid and superbug testing: how the deep sea could help us fight pandemics | Threatened habitats


IIt has been 30 years since the latest new class of antibiotics was introduced to the market. All of the drugs out there are basically variations on one theme: they kill bacteria, in a similar way. Some burst cell walls, others block DNA replication.

But bacteria evolve quickly to survive these chemical attacks – and as they survive, they grow into virulent superbugs. Without new antibiotics, by 2050 the death toll from drug-resistant infections is expected to reach 10 million people per year, making the coronavirus pandemic almost picturesque.

A seabed garden on the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean. The chemical defenses created by microbes living inside corals and sponges have been compared to the human gut microbiome. Photograph: Xinhua / Alamy

This is why scientists at the University of Plymouth searched the dark and cold abyss of the North Atlantic, where they found sponges containing potent molecules capable of killing these superbugs.

Kerry Howell, professor of deep sea ecology, and his colleagues carefully collected specimens of these plant-like animals, brought them back to the lab, and tested sprayed extracts against stubborn and pathogenic bacteria. Among the molecules of the deep sea, they discover promising bactericidal novelties.

Questions and answers

What is deep sea mining?


Deep sea mining involves recovering mineral deposits from the ocean area below 200 meters to the seabed, which is the largest and least explored environment on Earth, occupying 65% of the planet’s surface. Mining companies say the metals found there, such as copper, nickel, aluminum, lithium, cobalt and manganese, are needed to make batteries, smartphones and solar panels.

When will this happen?
Until there, 31 exploration licenses have been granted by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a United Nations agency, and 1.5 million square kilometers have been set aside, which equates to an area the size of Mongolia, in the Pacific and Indian Oceans as well as along the Mid Ridge. Atlantic. Nauru’s decision to trigger a rule requiring the ISA to approve a mining code – a set of rules “to regulate the prospecting, exploration and exploitation of marine minerals in the international seabed area” – will likely lead to full operating contracts in less than two years.

Why is this a problem?
Mining could cause enormous damage to the deep sea and to the creatures and ecosystems that exist there. Underwater ecosystems such as volcanic mountains, hydrothermal vents and submarine trenches are still poorly understood. Many species endemic to the deep sea could be wiped out by the creation of a single large mine, and many more creatures will be affected by noise, light pollution, and mining sediment plumes.

What can be done?
An immediate moratorium on deep-sea mining must be instituted while scientists assess potential damage to biodiversity, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Basically, IUCN is also saying that people need to recycle and reuse products so that there is less demand for natural resource extraction. New types of batteries are also being designed that do not require metals from the seabed.

Chris Michael and Phoebe Weston

Thank you for your opinion.

“We don’t yet know exactly what they are,” says Professor Mat Upton, a microbiologist who heads the lab portion of the biodiscovery program in Plymouth. “We have compounds that kill the bacteria that we want to try to kill, and we have a pretty good idea that these are new compounds. It’s early, but things are moving forward in the pipeline. “

The success rate in finding powerful and useful new compounds is found to be particularly high in deep-sea animals. Hundreds of biologically active compounds have been found on the ocean floor, some already widely used. The enzymes found in bacteria living around hydrothermal vents are even used in tests for the Covid virus.

Yet new antibiotics and an untold variety of beneficial molecules could easily be wiped out if the ecosystems around the vents and elsewhere on the ocean floor were destroyed by deep-sea mining, which could take place in less than two. years. Even after 40 years of scientific research since the discovery of hydrothermal vents, a tremendous amount is still being discovered about these extreme ecosystems, which thrive in scorching, toxic waters flowing through cracks in the deep seabed, miles below the sea. ‘water.

Howell says: “Part of the big concern of all deep sea conservationists is that we know how little is known about these areas and we are desperately trying to catch up. [deep-sea mining] industry. In my opinion, it is the wrong way. We should educate ourselves about these places before we even consider mining them.

One of the potential targets of deep-sea mining is the abyss of the southeast Atlantic, where Howell is planning his next expedition, along with his South African colleagues. “It is one of the least explored regions on our planet. There is really very little data, ”she says.

Map of the Clarion Clipperton area of ​​the Pacific Ocean, which has extensive mineral deposits

They will visit a vast underwater mountain range, the Walvis Ridge, which stretches nearly 2,000 miles between Tristan da Cunha Island and Namibia. Deep-sea miners eye seamounts like these for their outer crusts, which are rich in metals, including cobalt.

Howell’s team also plans to study the South Atlantic Abyssal Plain, which is dotted with metallic rock nodules similar to those of the Clarion Clipperton area of ​​the central Pacific, now sparking feverish interest among deep-sea miners.

“We’re trying to find out more about these areas, the species that inhabit them and also what else they do for humans, one aspect of which is their potential biomedical value,” Howell explains.

a deep sea robot picks up a sponge from the bottom of the sea
Researchers at Plymouth University have found antibacterial microbes on deep-water sponges. Photograph: courtesy of the NERC funded Deep Links project – University of Plymouth / University of Oxford / BGS / JNCC

Their trip, which has been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, is part of a five-year plan research program, One Ocean Hub, which seeks ways to equitably share various benefits of the oceans, encompassing environmental, socio-economic and cultural values.

One of the goals of the collaboration between dozens of organizations around the world is to juxtapose the easily monetized values ​​of the oceans, such as seabed mining, with the less tangible benefits, such as carbon sequestration and the hidden storehouse of potential new drugs.

Natural capital economists will run models to predict how wildlife, mineral wealth, and the hidden benefits of the deep sea interact, and how using one could put others at risk.

“What we’re interested in is educating society about these tradeoffs and competing uses,” Howell explains. “We obviously get a lot of benefits from the ocean that we don’t necessarily appreciate. “

A community of hydrothermal vents.
The ecosystem around a hydrothermal vent. These cracks releasing geothermally heated water are easily destroyed by mining, making the animals living around them particularly vulnerable. Photograph: Images of History of Science / Alamy

Studies have shown that up to three-quarters of sponges and deep-sea corals contain potentially useful compounds. These animals can look like trees, flowers or shrubs, and sometimes like cheese balls on sticks. “They can’t run away and they have to find ways to protect themselves – and it’s often chemical,” says Rosemary Dorrington, professor of microbiology at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, and research partner at One Ocean Hub.

Many of these chemical defenses are made up of communities of microbes living inside corals and sponges, which Dorrington compares to the human gut microbiome. “There can be up to 1,000 different species of bacteria in a sponge,” she says.

Unlike mining, expeditions such as Howell’s are expected to have little impact on deep-sea ecosystems. Robotic submersibles developed for the offshore oil and gas industry have become the distant eyes and hands of scientists working in the depths. And only one specimen of each species is needed. “In the old days, it took kilograms of something to extract milligrams of a compound. Now we can detect these compounds in parts per million, ”says Dorrington.

Scientists watch screens in control room as they remotely operate submersibles in deep water
Offshore submersibles developed for the petroleum industry are used to collect specimens from the seabed. Photograph: courtesy of the NERC funded Deep Links project – University of Plymouth, University of Oxford, BGS, JNCC

Unlike drug research – where a single specimen has to be taken from the seabed, using deep-diving submersibles originally developed for the oil industry – the likely footprint of deep-sea mining operations will be immense. . Mining robots would be sent to scrape the tops of huge seamounts, to collect nodules over hundreds of square kilometers and to demolish hydrothermal vents.

Snails with armored scales have been found near hydrothermal vents.
Snails with armored scales have been found near hydrothermal vents. Discovered only in 2001, it is already endangered. Photography: Jamstec

Animals living around vents can be particularly vulnerable to mining, as many have a small geographic range.

Weird snails with legs covered in armored scales were recently classified as endangered on the Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Only two of three known populations live on vent fields in the Indian Ocean that have received mineral exploration permits, allowing mining companies to prospect and perform testing.

In addition to destroying habitats and species, Dorrington fears that mining operations, working on a scale much larger than scientific research, could contaminate living and fragile communities – including microbes – that have taken millions of years. to evolve.

“It would be exactly the same as if we were going to Mars,” she said. “We should think about what to take with us. “

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