Can we save the ocean - or will the ocean save us?


Melbourne Museum bryozoan expert Phil Bock examines specimens.
Image: Gary Cranitch.

 

20 May 2010
 
 
Compounds discovered in underwater life may hold the key to curing cancer, according to Museum Victoria honorary associate and bryozoan expert Phil Bock.
 
Bryozoans, also known as moss animals or lace corals, are tiny invertebrate organisms, typically about 0.5 millimetres long that create colonies on dead coral or the underside of rocks in coral reefs.
 
There are around 6000 species of bryozoans around the world and Phil believes there are hundreds more to be discovered.
 
Chemicals extracted from bryozoans are being investigated for use in the treatment of cancer and other diseases, and have provided encouraging results.
 
"Analysis of a marine bryozoan species in America has come up with some interesting anti-cancer compounds which are still being tested," Phil said, "although it may not be the bryozoan that was releasing the anti-cancer compounds, but the bugs that were living inside."
 
But this doesn't mean we should give up investigating bryozoans for medical properties, Phil said.
 
"Any creature that is soft and brightly coloured and just sits there saying, ‘Eat me, eat me!' needs a defence which may be chemical. Many marine animals, including bryozoans, produce all sorts of odd chemicals some of which may display bioactivity that humans can harness for their own purposes. Chemists are only just beginning to discover the enormous range and the potential uses of such chemicals from the oceans," he said.
 
Bryozoans on the reef also provide food for nudibranchs (sea slugs), sea urchins, crustaceans, mites and starfish, among other things and contribute to the structure of coral reefs by depositing calcium carbonate in a similar way as corals.