Ocean's 'shipworm' mollusks have health benefits

Ocean's 'shipworm' mollusks have health benefits

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by Collette Wieland

kgw.com

Posted on May 17, 2013 at 5:45 AM

CORVALLIS - Nearly 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, yet 95 percent of what lies beneath the surface, is unexplored.

That’s something researchers at Oregon Health and Science University are working to change. They believe what’s living in the ocean now, could save your life tomorrow.

Dr. Margo Haygood, a marine micro-biologist at OHSU has partnered with other scientists across the country and in the Philippines, to study an inconspicuous animal that is producing potentially life-saving bacteria.

“We've sort of tip-toed into this obscure area, and begun to find some really interesting things," Dr. Haygood said.

Interesting things in some unexpected places, like a piece of driftwood you’d find on any Oregon beach. If you were to open one up, and see grooves that look like tunnels, the chances are, it was made by a tiny creature called a shipworm.

A shipworm is not a worm at all. In fact, it’s a mollusk and is closely related to clams.

“Their shells, are tiny, tiny little shells that are at the front end of the animal,” said Haygood. The shipworms use those shells like a drill.

It “drills” the wood and eats it. So when a shipworm starts to grow, its body extends from the shell and looks like a worm. So the shipworm uses its place of protection as a primary source for food.

"Inside their gills, inside the cells inside the gills, are bacteria," said Haygood.

That bacteria is pretty special. It helps the shipworm digest the wood and it’s given scientists a new source for medicine. Haygood explained that it can be used for antibiotics, applications against pain, and against cancer.

Antibiotics have been used for decades, and over time, many organisms have become resistant to the medication, but Dr. Haygood and her team’s discovery of a new antibiotic, gives the medical industry hope when it comes to fighting deadly diseases.

“In order to keep ahead of the rising antibiotic resistance, we need that novelty and we need to be able to investigate that novelty,” Dr. Haygood said.

That means one day, the bacteria from a shipworm, could be responsible for the life-saving medication you might need.

One other thing that makes these shipworm’s antibiotic truly a unique discovery, is that it has not been found anywhere else in nature.

Dr. Haygood’s partners in this study are at the University of the Philippines, The University of Utah, The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and Ocean Genome Legacy.

The group will be publishing its research under a research partnership called the Philippine Mollusk Symbiont International Cooperative Biodiversity Group.

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