Researchers in the Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine (CMBB) at Scripps participate in fundamental studies of the physiology of marine organisms, the conservation and management of marine habitats, the development of environmental monitoring and remediation technologies, the genetic engineering of commercially important marine species, the design of model systems to supplement mammals in biomedical research, and the development of pharmaceuticals from marine organisms.
New Cures from the Sea
CMBB researchers are participating in cooperative programs with the UCSD Cancer Center, various academic collaborators, and numerous pharmaceutical companies to develop new drugs from marine resources.
Recently, Scripps marine chemists isolated a chemical from a rare species of coral that shows promise as a potential drug to fight breast and ovarian cancers. Other Scripps scientists discovered a chemical from a marine sponge that shows potential for treating inflammation and pain without the problems associated with aspirin and other anti-inflammatory drugs.
Considered a revolutionary breakthrough, the chemical is now used by more than 20 companies as a tool for understanding the process of inflammation.
Several other chemicals from sponges and corals also have been identified and show promise for new treatments for acute asthma, arthritis, and injuries, without the shortcomings of steroids or other anti-inflammatory drugs.
Scripps researchers have played a leading role in the discovery that bacteria, protozoa, and viruses critically influence the structure and dynamics of the ocean's web of life and in turn, control the oceanic carbon cycle. They are now uncovering the biochemical and molecular mechanisms that underlie the roles of microbes in ecosystems.
These studies are fundamentally changing how scientists predict the behavior of marine ecosystems and their response to climate change and global warming. For instance, Scripps scientists recently discovered that interaction between bacteria and diatoms significantly influences silicon and carbon cycles in the ocean.
New approaches in molecular biology, genomics, and proteomics are now being used to gain a deeper understanding of how marine microbes exert critical controls on carbon cycling and global climate.
Marine Viral Genomics
Scripps scientists now estimate that for every liter of ocean water, there are about 1 billion bacteria and a mind-boggling 10 billion viruses. This easily makes viruses the most common "predator" in the ocean. Scripps scientists recently published the first scientific paper reporting the full DNA sequence of a marine virus.
Until this and other recent discoveries, viruses found in the ocean were an enigma. These studies, and others ongoing at Scripps, indicate a genetic link between marine and nonmarine viruses, shedding light on the origin of the world's first viruses.
Explaining Human Disease Processes
Scripps researchers are studying the molecules that regulate sperm and egg interactions in sea urchins and abalones to understand better how human cells work. Deciphering sperm and egg interactions at the cellular level in lower animals can unlock mysteries of cell interaction in higher animals.
Such discoveries may be used to explain human disease processes with the hope of increasing our ability to prevent them. Understanding how sperm cells penetrate egg cells also can help scientists understand how disease-causing cells invade normal cells.
Using Genetics to Produce Marine Pharmaceuticals
Research by Scripps scientists has determined that some important marine pharmaceuticals are produced by symbiotic microorganisms. However, many of these microorganisms cannot be cultured to produce sufficient quantities of the needed pharmaceutical compounds.
Due to recent advances in genetics, it is now possible to transfer genetic material from one organism to another. Scripps researchers are working to identify the genes that produce the desired compounds and to transfer those genes to a bacterium that is easy to culture.
Currently, Scripps scientists are employing these techniques in the study of two promising pharmaceuticals: the anticancer agent bryostatin and the antifungal agent theopalauamide.
Cleaning Up Pollutants
Scripps marine biologists are studying how certain marine bacteria can reduce toxic metal pollutants in the ocean. These bacteria transform metals from a dissolved form into a nontoxic solid form.
The goal of these studies is to identify the bacteria that carry out potentially useful processes and to discover how they accomplish these transformations. Ultimately, new tools such as genetically engineered microbes and proteins for removing metal pollutants from ocean water and sediment can be developed.
Studies in the Neurosciences
The Neurobiology Unit consists of several laboratories at Scripps studying the nervous systems of marine animals to better understand how they interact with their environment. The success, distribution, and ecological role of each animal species in its community depend on its behavior, its ability to detect features of its environment, and its repertoire of actions.
Scripps scientists study the anatomy and physiology of the behavior "machine," beginning with brain impulses that produce a variety of responses. The responses can be movements, or something quite different.
Electric fishes, for example, send out weak electric impulses that are used both to communicate and to detect undersea objects or cavities. Scientists hope to use the information to understand how biodiversity is maintained.
Next-Generation Ultrasonic Imaging
A sophisticated technique once proposed for radar systems is being developed by scientists at Scripps and the UCSD School of Medicine as part of a next-generation system for biomedical ultrasonic imaging.
The researchers hope this new technique will improve their ability to image blood vessels in people suffering from arteriosclerosis, a chronic disease that increases the risk of a stroke or aneurysm. They hope to enhance the ability to see smaller and deeper vessels than is possible with current systems.
Bioluminescence has numerous applications in cell and molecular biology, biotechnology, medical diagnosis, and environmental analysis. Luminescent bacteria are used to detect contaminants in wastewater and soil, and their cloned genes provide a powerful tool for monitoring gene expression.
Scripps researchers study the molecular biology and genetics of luminescent bacteria that form a symbiotic relationship with flashlight fish. Also studied are single-celled luminescent plankton known as dinoflagellates, the most common sources of oceanic bioluminescence. Dinoflagellates are extremely sensitive to water motion and can be used as a tool for visualizing complex flow patterns in water.
Scripps scientists are also developing the use of luminescent brittlestars as sensitive bioindicators of heavy metal contamination in the coastal environment.