Who would have guessed that a bizarre marine creature that lives entirely on a diet of wood might hold the key to efficient renewable energy?
The shipworm (actually a worm-shaped clam) has been the scourge of shipbuilders and wooden-boat owners for centuries. But scientists have recently discovered that this translucent mollusk with an appetite for dock pilings uses enzymes from symbiotic bacteria to digest wood—and this may prove to be the key to transforming agricultural waste into ethanol.
This is just one example of an unforeseen discovery that lies beneath the surface of the world’s oceans—and why Donald Comb, a scientist and avid environmentalist, founded Ocean Genome Legacy in 2001. He is also founder and former CEO of New England Biolabs.
“The mission of OGL is to save the DNA of many marine species that we think might go extinct very soon,” says Comb.
OGL’s priceless collection of marine DNA is slated to move to Northeastern in January, supported by a $3.6 million gift from NEB and OGL to administer the collection and renovate space at the university’s Marine Science Center in Nahant, Mass. The move will provide OGL with a location conducive to marine research while raising its profile in the scientific community through its association with Northeastern—a university known for marine science and sustainability research.
Northeastern students, in turn, will gain new opportunities for experiential learning, while faculty gain access to the enormous collection for research. The university will mount a fundraising effort from private donors and create a matching endowment to maintain and expand the collection.
“This is all about collaboration, because obviously it’s too big a job for any one organization to do on its own,” says Dan Distel, the executive director of OGL.
The OGL collection will be accessible to scientists around the world, helping democratize marine research by making it easier for scientists to obtain samples without traveling to exotic locations. It also eases the pressure on fragile environments by eliminating the need for scientists to disturb the ecosystem to obtain their own sample, according to Distel.
Preserving marine DNA has become a pressing issue as global warming raises acidity levels and surface temperatures in the world’s oceans. This poses a threat to many fragile marine ecosystems, including coral reefs, one of the primary collection focuses at OGL. Known as the “rain forests of the sea,” these fragile and biologically rich environments are home to many exotic creatures that hold the key to breakthroughs in medicine and other scientific research.
For example, Prialt, a nonopiate painkiller, comes from cone snails, while Yondelis, used to treat cancer, derives from sea squirts.
To date, OGL has tissue and DNA samples from 4,000 species, including some of the world’s most unusual creatures. For example, the giant hydrothermal vent worm—six feet long and topped by a bright red plume—lives on poisonous gases released by volcanic vents on the ocean floor. While less exotic, staghorn coral is one of the primary creators of Caribbean coral reefs, and the fact that it has declined by 98 percent since 1980 could be a harbinger of wide-scale environmental disaster.
“There are at least 300,000 known marine species and possibly 10 times that number yet to be discovered,” says Distel. “We cannot predict the result of removing even one of these species, much less driving entire swaths of them to extinction.”