RSC ChemSpider supports deep-sea project to find new antibiotics

20 February 2013

The RSC is using its extensive experience in hosting chemical data to support a research project to find new bioactive compounds deep in the world's ocean beds, which could produce novel antibiotics.

Scientists from the UK, Belgium, Norway, Spain, Ireland, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Denmark will work together on the PharmaSea project to collect and screen samples of mud and sediment from huge, previously untapped, oceanic trenches. 

The project focuses on biodiscovery research and the development and commercialisation of new bioactive compounds from marine organisms, including deep-sea sponges and bacteria, to evaluate their potential as novel drug leads or ingredients for nutrition or cosmetic applications.

Assisted by the RSC's natural product resources, the society's ChemSpider database will help the scientists to speed up the process of identifying new compounds of interest.

ChemSpider contains over 28 million chemical structures. Through the process of dereplication, the database will assist the scientists in determining the structures of any compounds found and provide information on whether or not the compounds they find are already known. The database will also be used to assist in computer-assisted structure elucidation. 

Antony Williams, RSC Vice-President of Strategic Development said: "We are very excited to have ChemSpider involved in such a large-scale, cutting-edge project like this."

"ChemSpider will help the scientists identify compounds much more quickly by offering access to natural product data resources and algorithms to assist in data analysis."

"We are looking forward with great anticipation to seeing the outcomes of this project as it progresses."

The large-scale, four-year PharmaSea project is backed by more than €9.5 million of EU funding and brings together 24 partners from 14 countries from industry, academia and non-profit organisations.

The international team of scientists is led by Professor Marcel Jaspars of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, and coordinated by Dr. Camila Esguerra of the University of Leuven in Belgium. 

One of the aims of PharmaSea is to discover new marine bacteria that can produce novel antibiotics: "There's a real lack of good antibiotics in development at the moment. There hasn't been a completely new antibiotic registered since 2003. If nothing's done to combat this problem we're going to be back to a 'pre-antibiotic-era' in around ten or twenty years, where bugs and infections that are currently quite simple to treat could be fatal", says Marcel Jaspars, who is Professor of Chemistry and Director of the Marine Biodiscovery Centre at the University of Aberdeen. PharmaSea will also focus on drug discovery for neurological, inflammatory, and other infectious diseases.

Only a handful of samples have ever been taken from deep trenches and investigated, so the project is breaking new ground. "PharmaSea will not only be exploring new territory at the bottom of the oceans, but also new areas in 'chemical space'. With our broad platform of cutting-edge bioassays to detect drug-like activity, we'll be testing many unique chemical compounds from these marine samples that have literally never seen the light of day. We're quite hopeful that we'll find a number of exciting new drug leads", says Dr. Camila Esguerra, Industrial Research Fellow and Lecturer with the Laboratory for Molecular Biodiscovery at the University of Leuven.

The international team will employ strategies commonly used in the salvage industry to carry out the sampling. Using fishing vessels, researchers will drop a sampler on a reel of cables to the trench bed to collect sediment. Scientists will then attempt to grow unique bacteria and fungi from the sediment that can be extracted to isolate novel drug-like molecules for pharmacological testing. Partners from China, Chile, Costa Rica, New Zealand and South Africa will support the PharmaSea project. The first field tests will be carried out next autumn in the Atacama Trench in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, about 100 miles off the coast of Chile and Peru. The team will also search the Arctic waters off Norway and the Antarctic via Italian and South African partners. Deep trenches will also be accessed off New Zealand and China.

Marine organisms that live more than 2,000 meters below the sea level are considered to be an interesting source of novel bioactive compounds as they survive under extreme conditions. "Trenches are separated from each other and represent islands of diversity. They are not connected to each other and life has evolved differently in each one," explains Marcel Jaspars. 

Related Links

Link icon PharmaSea project
PharmaSea brings together a broad international, interdisciplinary team of academics, industry researchers and specialists focused on marine biodiscovery.

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Contact and Further Information

Victoria Steven
Media Relations Executive
Royal Society of Chemistry, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BA
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7440 3322