I’m proud to be at a (g)rad school where scientists not only figure out secrets of the earth (and the universe) but often employ interdisciplinary approaches to get the job done (IGERT cohort represent!). But, full disclosure: I’m even prouder to be from a school with more astronauts and a football team that didn’t dissolve after its first season. (This is because nerds from the Midwest love a solid running game as much as running regression analyses.) Between kicking as-trophysics and taking games, my alma mater scores $500M in research funding each year, and uses it to get mad interdisciplinary and high…Tech.
From my old A-town stomp-ing ground comes a high-profile example of the option offense, as executed by marine organisms. Chemists and biologist at Georgia Tech collaborated to study the secondary metabolites on the surfaces of marine algae using a new technology called desorption electrospray ionization mass spectrometry. (Can this please be the name of a new hair product, too?) The tool allows scientists to map the chemical properties of an intact biological surface to determine where on the organism a chemical is being used, not just that it’s “in there somewhere, doin’ something.” (This had long been standard protocol in chemical ecology.)
The scientists studied two morphotypes of a red alga from Fiji called Callophycus serratus (Note the extremely wise choice of sampling location. It’s no coincidence that I study coral reefs… “I learned it from watching y’all, okay?”) and found together they produce a total of 28 closely-related chemicals that can each fight off a pathogenic marine fungus called Lindra thalassiae. It’s the marine equivalent of the option offense: you’ve got the quarterback, A-back, B-back, or ten different diterpene-benzoate macrolides to get the job done, depending on which fungus you’re trying to brush off your shoulders. The results highlight how little we tropical biologists know about the complex chemical cocktails that marine organisms put on their surfaces and in the water. Rather than observe the air and ground attacks, ecologist have typically found it easier to just check the scoreboard at one point in time, and assume they know how the game unfolded.
For similar reasons, the chemical diversity and pharmaceutical potential of tropical ecosystems has been the subject of a lot of big talk with only rare examples of “walking the bio-activity walk.” In this study, however, one of the ecologically-important compounds also showed anti-malarial properties in early tests. The researchers will start tweaking the molecule to improve it’s performance in a game setting. If the compound is eligible (for drug development), it may someday return to the tropics in a form harder, better, faster, stronger.
The abstract of their paper claims this is “among the first examples of natural product imaging on biological surfaces.” I’ll assume the authors conveniently forgot ESPN camera crews, whiskey, and footbal fans when they considered the kinds of imaging of natural products on biological surfaces going on at Tech any any given time. Our work hard/play hard is never over.