Sea squirts may help researchers save lives

By By Natalie Hale

By Natalie Hale

A U research team discovered bacteria in sea squirts that could be manipulated to create new drug therapies to treat HIV and cancer.

The bacteria, found in sea squirts–small invertebrates found in the tropical Pacific–and other marine life, are responsible for making many chemicals thought to be used as defense mechanisms.

While examining the bacteria’s relationship to the sea squirt, they found that the bacteria created many compounds important to the organisms’ coexistence.

“The research that we conduct is to understand the difference in compounds and how they originated at the genetic level,” said Eric Schmidt, assistant professor of medicinal chemistry at the U College of Pharmacy and the senior author of the study.

What they discovered about the bacteria was unexpected.

“When we looked into how the bacterium makes its chemicals, we knew of a sequence in it that we could manipulate,” said Brian Hathaway, a U graduate student in chemistry and an author of the study. “We were able to manipulate the sequence and convince the bacterium to make a completely different molecule.”

Sea squirts are used in the lab’s research because of their simple nervous systems and researchers’ ability to visually see changes made on a genetic level.

The squirts’ bacteria is photosynthetic; the chlorophyll they produce causes the squirt to have a bright spinach-green hue.

The U team found that if it made a change in a gene, it could directly manipulate a pathway in the creature.

To further study the manipulations it could make, the research team replicated millions of bacteria, which can be used to screen against various diseases and used to discover new drugs.

“This is a nice illustration of how nature’s diversity informs and inspires new compounds that could have a potential healing purpose,” Schmidt said.

Sample bacteria was gathered from 46 sea squirts in the Pacific Ocean near New Guinea for the study, in which other institutions collaborated with the U.