Researchers at the University of California, San Diego say that they have identified novel techniques which can add some strength to scientific efforts for locating potent natural compounds in the sea that may be used as medicines to treat diseases like cancer.
Mass spectrometry, an imaging technique that deciphers the size, structure and properties of molecules, is key to the novel techniques that scientists have described in two research papers in the journals Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and Molecular Biosystems.
One such technology is called natural product MALDI-TOF (Matrix Assisted Laser Desorption Ionization-Time of Flight) imaging mass spectrometry, an imaging technique that can uniquely probe the inner workings of marine organisms.
The researchers say that this technique may be helpful to marine biologists and chemists in discerning the specific processes that produce possible therapeutic compounds within sponges, mollusks and other marine invertebrates.
They say that the technique allows them to uniquely peer into algae and sponges, thereby narrowing the locations where beneficial molecules are being created.
According to them, the novel technology has enabled them to pinpointed clusters of known and unknown molecules from marine cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) and within a cross-section of a sponge, some of which have promising therapeutic properties.
The researchers say that the development of natural product npMALDI-I mass spectrometry is quite significant because traditional mass spectrometric methods are not able to ionize organic molecules directly from sponge tissue in this manner.
Knowing that co-existing microorganisms tend to populate specific regions of sponge tissue, correlating the sites where the organic molecules were found to these specific regions suggests that "the microorganisms are responsible for the production of at least some of the compounds," says Pieter Dorrestein of the UCSD Skaggs School.
"An analytical approach such as this may become useful in the discovery of the organisms that are responsible for the production of natural products that can be used to treat diseases," the researcher adds.
William Gerwick of the Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego says: "Ultimately, we need to know who holds the genes that produce the promising compounds. That's a fundamental question with lots of implications. It's been very difficult to answer, but now we are showing that mass spectrometry offers some new ways to interrogate these kinds of issues.