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KWONG: We are headed to the deep sea right now, off the west coast of Ireland. Sam Afoullouss is one particular of just a handful of people today who’ve found what lives down there, a mile or more underneath the surface area.

SAM AFOULLOUSS: And out of nowhere, this big, big sponge appeared – big, large trumpet sponge, like form of the equivalent of a gramophone – sticking out from the wall. So it was almost certainly 2 meters vast and possibly 3 meters deep.

KWONG: Now, Sam does not dive down to the depths himself. He views what is under via a camera connected to a extravagant robot. It reveals a part of our world that appears like an alien earth.

AFOULLOUSS: Branching bamboo corals the size of a tree.

The corals reaching out more than cliff edges.

Gigantic sponges.

This small small octopus known as the Dumbo octopus since it has these very little flaps beside his ears that sort of make it look like Dumbo.

KWONG: But Sam’s not there to gawk at critters. As an underwater chemist, he is more intrigued in the chemicals these marine organisms make, chemical compounds that can be utilized for drug discovery. We human beings have been drawing medicinal inspiration from nature for a long time.

AFOULLOUSS: And that’s the place most of our medicines arrive from – derived or encouraged by purely natural resources. And a good deal of those people appear from common cure variety of points. Like, aspirin is manufactured from a molecule identified as salicylic acid, and salicylic acid is located in willow bark and has been employed for hundreds of many years as a way to handle ache.

KWONG: Lots of treatments occur from indigenous information, and even though a lot of present-day medicines impressed by character arrive from land, Sam states the deep sea has chemicals that can recover, much too.

AFOULLOUSS: My favorite 1 which is been identified so far is surely ziconotide. It can be a painkiller that’s 1,000 periods much better than morphine. Does not have any of the addictive facet outcomes that you associate with opioids. And it is located from a sea snail in the tropics.

KWONG: Anti-cancer medicine created from sponge metabolites, analgesic from Caribbean corals – these are just a handful of possible medications experts have discovered from our oceans. The problem is obtaining down there.

Now on the clearly show, how the following technology of medications may be located in the deep sea. I’m Emily Kwong. And you happen to be listening to Short WAVE, the each day science podcast from NPR.


KWONG: When Sam Afoullouss moved to Galway, a coastal city in western Ireland, it was to examine chemistry.

AFOULLOUSS: I started researching spider venoms and seeking to make antibiotics out of them and anti-most cancers medications.

KWONG: Effectively, spider venoms were being for weekdays, but weekends had been for scuba diving.

AFOULLOUSS: I might commit the evening in a area termed Connemara, which is a huge, significant park close to here, and I’d be scuba diving the entire time. And the scuba diving bought me actually, definitely interested in the maritime planet. In Eire, we have gotten rid of most of our wild ecosystems. You will find incredibly minimal forest left and factors like that. So for us to knowledge correct wildlife was very hard.

KWONG: And it was shelling out time in these pretty unique areas, the chem lab and the ocean, that led Sam to a revelation. He could incorporate these interests by wanting for medicines in the deep sea.

AFOULLOUSS: Existence on land is uninteresting in comparison to the sea, no question about it. And then, as you go deeper, the species diverge extra.

KWONG: A lot more biodiversity indicates far more chemical range, which is exactly the form of issue an underwater chemist wishes to see, not that you can see significantly of everything outside the house of the robotic floodlight. Ailments down there are pretty excessive.

AFOULLOUSS: In the deep sea, you will find no light. It is all around 4 levels Celsius, so the form of temperatures of your fridge, and there’s unbelievably large pressure. It truly is kind of the equal of having 20 elephants standing on you, if you ended up to go down that deep. So a very excessive setting.

KWONG: Deep-sea creatures have had to adapt to these extreme ailments, in some cases working with genuinely attention-grabbing metabolic chemical substances to do it. But 1st, to research it at all, Sam has to get to these inaccessible destinations, with the assistance of underwater robots and their incredibly light arms.

AFOULLOUSS: We can decide up the sort of coral that’s smaller than, like, the straw that you would get in your Coca-Cola or anything like that. And we had been equipped to decide on it up from 2 kilometers depth without the need of variety of harming the other animals close to it.

KWONG: Wow. What is so interesting about your analysis, Sam, is you’re doing one thing that individuals have been accomplishing eternally, which is wanting for bioactive chemical substances that could be medicinal – proper? – but in a place that pretty couple of individuals have absent prior to. So once you obtain these variety of challenging-to-find samples, what do you do with them?

AFOULLOUSS: Yeah. So when we get back to land, we freeze-dry all of them, so they are dry, sort of the equivalent of tea leaves, and then we extract them.

KWONG: Sam and his colleagues then take a look at these deep-sea extracts on diverse illnesses in the lab.

AFOULLOUSS: A substantially increased proportion of those are equipped to destroy a disorder than what you would uncover on shallow-drinking water reefs and when compared to what you would uncover if you in comparison it to land animals or land life, no matter if it can be mushrooms or crops.

KWONG: They’ve attempted them on cancers, malaria, even brain-feeding on amoebas.

AFOULLOUSS: And if we’re blessed, if just, say, we are on the lookout for an anti-most cancers drug, a person of these extracts will be able to kill that certain type of cancer. And that allows us know that this extract, which is a mixture of probably a hundred molecules, perhaps a thousand molecules from that sponge or that coral, consists of at minimum 1 molecule with the opportunity to be turned into a medicine.

KWONG: And when you’ve got recognized that individual molecule that has the possible to be a medication, it can’t be as basic as then just expressing to the pharmaceutical industry, here, and they get it appropriate to the shelf.

AFOULLOUSS: Particularly.

KWONG: What’s needed to basically shift a medicine from sea to shelf?

AFOULLOUSS: Yeah. So it can be fairly a activity. The initially tactic and the most traditional strategy would have been to acquire it from character. But we now know that there is no way that that’s sustainable. You’d be destroying these super sophisticated and intricate ecosystems. The 2nd method is to make it in the lab, to synthesize it. But this is seriously, seriously challenging, seriously, really pricey and utilizes a large amount of matters like heavy metals that aren’t superior for the environment and end up making a ton of chemical squander. But the most modern system that everybody’s kind of pushing toward as our kind of gold typical is by getting the organic recipe, so the gene, and insert them into one thing we can improve seriously easily, like yeast or E. coli, improve them up in a bioreactor, the exact same way you make beer, and rather of the yeast producing us beer, it is producing us our subsequent era of medications.

KWONG: Genetics – wonderful. Sam, what is the most attention-grabbing factor you’ve got located when looking for medicines in the deep sea?

AFOULLOUSS: So the bubblegum coral is in all probability just one of the – my beloved coral that we’ve observed so far in the deep sea. So it truly is named a bubblegum coral for the reason that it can be vibrant pink like kind of, you know, kid’s bubblegum. But there is also the polyps, which are sort of the living part of the coral. When you kind of go up to it and disturb it with the ROV, they retract into themselves, and it appears to be like like type of the bubblegum that someone left on the bottom of your university bus. But it truly is remarkably wonderful as a coral. And that specific coral confirmed that – the tea we designed from it confirmed that it was in a position to get rid of malaria.

KWONG: They had found out a new chemical with medicinal possible, and it needed a name. So a single working day, Sam’s niece was viewing over his shoulder as he drew the chemical’s molecular construction on the computer system, and she preferred to enable.

AFOULLOUSS: And then fifty percent an hour later on, she looked at me and was like, have you not figured out what it is nonetheless? And I was like, no, have you? And she was like, yeah, we do this stuff in faculty all the time – ’cause she thought it was sign up for the dots. And she was like, it really is a whale, foolish. And I was like, oh, my, thank you, Amelia (ph).


AFOULLOUSS: I was like, you know, where would I be without your enable? And she said it with pure sass, as effectively. It was brilliant. And so due to the fact of that, we were like, you know what? It does glimpse like a whale. And in Irish, the term for whale is miol mor. So we determined to title it melianol.

KWONG: How do you sense about what you do?

AFOULLOUSS: I love it. I absolutely like it.


AFOULLOUSS: I genuinely even…


AFOULLOUSS: ‘Cause you’re using what’s been evolving for hundreds of thousands of years to resolve our difficulties of the foreseeable future, and you happen to be undertaking it in the regular way – just making use of condition-of-the-art strategies to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF New music)

AFOULLOUSS: The deep sea is underexplored, and it is really vital to highlight how vulnerable they are to our activities. Even although they’re out of sight and out of intellect, they are not able to escape our destruction. And I believe by demonstrating, as well, that, you know, we can uncover our new medication in these advanced, understudied ecosystems, it sort of highlights the significance of why we require to defend them.


KWONG: Sam Afoullouss just earned his Ph.D. in Galway, Eire. You can see pics of his underwater exploration on the episode page at npr.org.

This episode was produced by Berly McCoy. It was edited by Gabriel Spitzer and fact-checked by Rachel Carlson. The audio engineer was Gilly Moon. Gisele Grayson is our senior supervising editor. Beth Donovan is our senior director. And Anya Grundmann is our senior vice president of programming. I’m Emily Kwong. Thanks for listening to Short WAVE from NPR.


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