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Oceanic Twilight Zone Teeming with Fungi Could Hold Key to New Medicines

A comprehensive study of ocean DNA has unveiled a plethora of fungi thriving in the twilight zone of the ocean, presenting promising avenues for the discovery of novel drugs akin to the revolutionary impact of penicillin discovered in 1928 as Dr Alexander Fleming returned from a holiday to find mould from the Penicillium genus growing on a Petri dish.


Published in the journal Frontiers in Science, the study represents the most extensive exploration of oceanic DNA to date, shedding light on the abundance of fungi inhabiting the depths between 200 meters and 1,000 meters below the surface. This twilight zone, characterized by extreme conditions including high pressure, darkness, and cold temperatures, hosts a diverse array of organisms, including uniquely adapted fish species such as lantern sharks and kitefin sharks, distinguished by their large eyes and bioluminescent skin.


Fabio Favoretto, a postdoctoral scholar at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, noted the potential for discovering antibiotic properties akin to penicillin from these oceanic fungi. The challenging environmental conditions of the twilight zone offer a fertile ground for the exploration of unique fungal adaptations, potentially leading to the identification of new species with distinctive biochemical properties.


Microscopic marine fungi are abundant, with around 2000 species found to date

Dayarathne MC et al. (2020)


The comprehensive ocean DNA catalogue, unveiled recently, is a culmination of data amassed from various expeditions, notably the four-year Tara Oceans expedition commencing in 2009 and the 2010 Malaspina Circumnavigation expedition. Leveraging technological advancements, the study has significantly expanded our understanding of the oceanic realm, unraveling previously unexplored dimensions of marine biodiversity.


Elisa Laiolo, the lead author of the study, highlighted the surprising prevalence of fungi in the twilight zone, underscoring the significance of this finding in advancing our comprehension of oceanic ecosystems. Furthermore, the study unveiled the pivotal role played by viruses in enhancing gene diversity, facilitating evolutionary adaptations such as the ability to degrade synthetic polymers, a crucial response to contemporary environmental challenges.


Despite the monumental insights offered by the ocean DNA catalogue, challenges persist regarding equitable access and sharing of benefits, particularly for nations in the global south lacking adequate resources for gene sequencing and analysis. Carlos Duarte, a senior author of the study, emphasized the imperative of addressing issues of marine gene ownership and benefit sharing, advocating for inclusive policies to ensure equitable distribution of scientific advancements.


While acknowledging the strides made in marine genetic governance, concerns remain regarding the operationalization of benefit-sharing mechanisms. The recent treaty stipulating ownership of discovered marine genes marks a significant step forward, albeit with unresolved questions regarding the modalities of benefit distribution.


The release of the ocean DNA catalogue has been hailed as a milestone by marine scientists, offering an invaluable resource for biodiversity conservation efforts and facilitating monitoring of species distribution in response to environmental shifts induced by climate change and human activities. Favoretto lauded the catalogue as a vital tool for informing conservation strategies, underscoring its potential to catalyze transformative advancements in marine science.


For more information, watch the full interview of the researchers on the study.

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