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|Articles - May 2013|
|Monday, April 29, 2013|
BY LINDA BAKER
Despite their name, shipworms are not worms but mollusks: small, clam-like creatures that cause no end of headaches for boat owners by drilling their hard shells into ship hulls, then consuming that cellulose as breakfast, lunch and dinner. Now a team of OHSU researchers, in partnership with scientists from other institutions, has discovered an upside to the hungry worm. To convert wood into nutrient-rich fuel, the shipworm relies on symbiotic bacteria that secrete a powerful antibiotic — one that holds promise for battling human disease, says Margo Haygood, an OHSU marine microbiologist. In humans, antibiotic resistance has become a serious health threat. Not so for the lowly shipworm, which never develops resistance to the organisms involved in the cellulose-conversion process. The mollusk doesn’t appear to suffer from side effects, either, Haygood says. Part of a larger biodiversity initiative underway in the Philippines, the mollusk research may also yield new applications for biofuels production, which typically involves the breakdown of woody matter for the creation of ecologically friendly energy sources. Tapping the treasure trove of marine life for new medications and natural energy sources is a no-brainer, observes Haygood. “Guess what,” she says, “life evolved in the ocean.”
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