25 February 2009

Marvellous Marine Bacteria: medical and other applications

What we dismiss as scum might be full of unknown treasures. In Indonesia, scientists discover bacteria species that could be used to clean up large-scale oil spills without the toxic byproducts of traditional chemical methods. These bacteria were found in a study of sediments in Indonesian seas.

Meanwhile, Norwegian scientists produced completely new antibiotics from bacteria found in the sea. Taken from the Trondheim Fjord, eleven species of bacteria were found to produce substances that kill cancerous cells and three other bacteria that produce new antibiotics.

In the US, a compound from a sea sponge was able to reverse antibiotic resistance in several strains of bacteria, making once-resistant strains succumb to readily available antibiotics. The team made the discovery when they noticed a sponge thriving in what was an otherwise dead coral reef.

Scientists Discover Bacteria That Can Clean Oil Spills
Anita Rachman, The Jakarta Globe 13 Feb 09;
It seems that the marketing tagline, “Indonesia — the Ultimate in Diversity,” extends to the microscopic world of bacteria as well.

A team of Indonesian and Japanese scientists scouring the layers of sediment under Indonesian seas said that they had been able to isolate 1,200 individual species of the unicellular microorganisms, including 182 new bacterial species, that could be used to clean up large-scale oil spills from shipping accidents.

“Certain species of bacteria can degrade oil,” said Dwi Susilaningsih, a biotechnology researcher from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, or LIPI.

Indonesian shipping lanes, which are among the busiest in the world, have long been plagued by oil spills.

“The areas that face the most risk in terms of oil spills because of heavy maritime traffic are the Malacca and Sunda straits, as well as the waters around Java,” Dwi said.

Since 1970, there had been as many as 170 oil spills involving tankers in Indonesian waters, causing serious environmental damage, according to Dwi.

She said that the accidents had attracted the attention of LIPI and Japan's National Institute of Technology and Evaluation, or NITE , resulting in a joint effort between the two countries to find a better way to treat oil spills.

There are currently several chemical-based treatments for oil spills, but environmental groups have complained that they were not environmentally friendly.

“Some people were not aware that a number of these chemicals were toxic and harmful to marine life,” she said.

Dwi said that machines could also be used to treat water contaminated with oil slicks, but such a procedure leaves behind residues that still require chemical treatment.

“That was what motivated us to look for a biological alternative,” she said.

The researchers had long been aware that thousands of species of bacteria were capable of degrading oil. Armed with that knowledge, LIPI and NITE worked together to isolate and identify oil-degrading microorganisms.

The two groups analyzed the effects of the bacteria on minor oil slicks in three busy shipping areas: Malacca strait, Pari Island and Lombok strait.

Six researchers from Japan and 15 staffers from LIPI's research center for biology, biotechnology and oceanography took part in the program, which started on August 2005 and took three years to complete.

The Japanese institution fully funded the research, spending Rp 3 billion ($255,000) for the heavy equipment alone.

According to an agreement signed by both countries, the researchers would seek a way to make the use of oil-degrading bacteria more practical.

The researchers already have an idea: a liquid solution or powder mixture made mostly of the bacteria, which could be dispersed by ocean clean-up authorities in the affected areas.

“The bacteria would break up the long oil carbon chain,” Dwi said. “After the carbon chain is broken, the bacteria degrade the oil and any residue that is left behind.”

LIPI urged the government to closely watch the use of chemical s to clean oil spills.

Arudji Wahyono, head of the Oil Spills Mitigation Team for upstream oil and gas regulator BP Migas, hailed the discovery, saying it could provide a good alternative to dispersants, which were currently used by most companies when dealing with maritime accidents.

“The dispersants are not harmful to the environment, but the use of bacteria to treat oil contaminations presents a biological alternative,” he said.

However, he said that LIPI should provide a guarantee that the bacteria had passed laboratory tests and would not have any negative effects on marine life.
Sea sponge shows promise as superbug antidote
Julie Steenhuysen Reuters 14 Feb 09;
CHICAGO, Feb 13 (Reuters) - A compound from a sea sponge was able to reverse antibiotic resistance in several strains of bacteria, making once-resistant strains succumb to readily available antibiotics, U.S. researchers said on Friday.

"We can resensitize these pathogenic bacteria to standard, current-generation antibiotics," said Peter Moeller of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Hollings Marine Laboratory in Charleston, South Carolina.

Drug-resistant bacteria are a growing problem in hospitals worldwide, marked by the rise of superbugs such as methicillin-resistant Staphyloccus aureus, or MRSA. Such infections kill about 19,000 people a year in the United States.

Moeller, who is working with researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina and North Carolina State University, said the team noticed a sponge thriving in what was an otherwise dead coral reef.

"It begged the question how is it surviving when everything else is dying?" Moeller told reporters at the American American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago. "This opened up a whole new arena for us."

The researchers began chopping the sponge into smaller and smaller bits to isolate the properties that helped the sponge thrive in hostile marine conditions.

The team found that these bits of sponge were able to repel bacterial biofilms -- a slimy substance bacteria form to help stick to surfaces.

"What we found is these (sponge) derivatives actually dispersed existing bacterial biofilms as well as inhibited production of subsequent bacterial biofilms," Moeller said.

"This is a very exciting result when you realize that 65 to 80 percent of all human pathogenic infections are based on biofilms," he added.

Moeller said the team tested the substance on some of the toughest pathogens, including MRSA.

They found when they mixed this sponge material in with an antibiotic, they were able to make several types of once-resistant bacteria sensitive to antibiotics.

Since the compounds are non-toxic, Moeller said the team is now working with a number of medical device companies to incorporate it into the plastic materials used to make devices like stents used to prop open diseased arteries or in intravenous lines used in critically ill patients. He declined to name the companies.

"The idea is that we could get rid of bacterial infections that are so common to them," Moeller said.

Eventually, he foresees a new class of "helper drugs" that could restore the potency of antibiotics that have lost the war to superbugs. "Getting it through FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) approval will take awhile," he said.

(Editing by Eric Beech)
Medicines From The Sea
ScienceDaily 25 Feb 09;
For the first time, Norwegian scientists have managed to produce completely new antibiotics from bacteria found in the sea. The eleven species of bacteria that create substances that kill cancerous cells and three other bacteria that produce new antibiotics were discovered by scientists at NTNU and SINTEF.

In collaboration with research groups in Moscow and the University of Bergen, they have made breakthroughs in the field of biotechnology. Never before have Norwegian scientists carried out the entire process from gathering bacteria from the fjords to presenting completely new interesting substances in bottles.

Behind their success lies a long and painstaking process of screening, cultivation, isolation and testing. However, it will still take some time before they can be sure that the process will continue to the phases of commercialisation and medicine production.

A network is built up

The NTNU and SINTEF researchers have been bioprospecting for five or six years, searching for interesting substances that are produced by marine bacteria. The wide range of expertise of this research group makes it unique, as it brings together competence in physiology and genetics, and has access to modern screening and fermentation laboratories.

The pace of the process has risen during the past few months, since the recruitment of Professor Stein Ove Døskeland’s group at the University of Bergen. The scientists have also had bacterial fractions tested in Russia.

Ninety percent are of no interest

Many of the bacteria that have been brought up from the Trondheim Fjord have antibiotic functions, but most of these are already known, and are therefore of no interest. New compounds that can be patented are most interesting.

“Substances with a new chemical structure and, we hope, with a different mechanism of action than we already know of, could be extremely valuable, for example in fighting cancer. This is why we need more candidate structures. Not all of them can be developed into new medicines, but if we are successful with one or two of them, we will be quite happy,” says NTNU professor Sergey Zotchev.

Recent focus on a few selected bacteria has led to these exciting findings. In Bergen and Moscow, the 11 anti-cancer substances have been tested against leukemias and stomach, colon and prostate cancers.

“We have found that cancerous cells have been killed, while normal cells survive, and that individual extracts act on different types of cancer cells,” says senior scientist Håvard Sletta of SINTEF. “However, we still have not identified the active substances in the compounds produced by the bacteria”.

Much work still to be done

Meticulous laboratory experiments have enable the scientists to identify the chemical structure of one of the three substances that can be used as antibiotics, and which they now know act against multiresistant bacteria. Towards the end of January, this substance was due to be tested on animals in Moscow. If the results turn out to be positive, the way will be clear for a patent application.

“If it turns out that this substance does not work in animals, the worst that can happen is that there will be a pause in our efforts. However, in many cases, all that is needed to take us further is a chemical modification of the molecule, but that requires a lot of work, and we could be stopped for lack on funding,” says Sergey Zotchev.

“We need to remember that bacteria from the sea produce antibiotics in order to deal with their own natural competitors, rather than to act against infections in the human body”.

Adapted from materials provided by SINTEF, via AlphaGalileo.

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