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Searching the depths of the straits of Florida for disease cures


Harbor Branch Biomedical Expedition to include first submersible exploration of remote Cay Sal Bank

On Monday, the Harbor Branch drug discovery group will begin a 2-week expedition to explore the Straits of Florida in search of organisms that produce chemicals with the potential to cure diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s. The work will include the first submersible exploration of the remote Cay Sal Bank, which encompasses a number of small, uninhabited islands 30 miles north of Cuba. Cay Sal was once notorious for its role in illegal drug smuggling, but researchers expect to discover pristine reefs there down to 3,000 feet that could lead to a new reputation for the area as the source of lifesaving drugs. Regular dispatches and photos from the expedition will be posted at

"We don’t really know what organisms to expect," says Dr. Amy Wright, head of the Harbor Branch Biomedical Marine Research group, "Given the difference in the habitat, we expect to find some new species that we haven’t collected before. That’s why we’re going."

Cay Sal is a 60-mile wide sand bank fringed with a few small islands and surrounded on all sides by the deep Straits of Florida and the swiftly flowing Florida Current, which joins with the Antilles Current to form the Gulf Stream off Central Florida. Besides the Cay Sal Bank, the expedition will also include several days of submersible exploration on the Miami Terrace, a 60-mile long, ancient deep-water reef just east of Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

During dives on the Miami Terrace in May of 2004, the team, along with scientists from Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, found incredible diversity that varied dramatically along its length. Prior to that cruise the steep rocky walls had only been seen from submersibles by geologists in 1970 and 1995. Dives during the Straits of Florida expedition will be in new areas not yet explored. Besides looking for unusual species, a key goal will be to gather samples of a sponge collected last May that produces chemicals currently showing potential in fighting pancreatic cancer.

The upcoming expedition is being supported through funds appropriated by the Florida legislature and approved by Governor Jeb Bush as part of the state’s response to the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy’s (USCOP) historic 2004 report. The report is the first comprehensive review of the nation’s management of ocean resources in over 30 years. It calls for sweeping changes in ocean policy including dramatic increases in ocean science funding and restructuring of government agencies that manage ocean resources.

"Governor Bush’s response to the report was by far one of the most substantial and relevant of any state in the country," says Harbor Branch President and CEO Dr. Shirley Pomponi, who was a member of the Scientific Advisory Panel to the USCOP and will be part of the expedition.

The state also funds marine drug discovery exploration through the Florida Atlantic University-based Center of Excellence in Biomedical and Marine Biotechnology, which includes Harbor Branch as a partner.

In the 1950s the Cay Sal Bank was a staging area for secret missions in Cuba, just 30 miles away. Later, it became a notorious stopping point for narcotics smugglers, though regular patrols have all but eliminated that reputation. Though only about 50 miles from the Florida Keys, the Cay Sal Bank remains remote and relatively pristine because would-be visitors must clear customs on inhabited islands such as Bimini before heading for the bank. This makes for a long trip that deters most.

Divers who do make the journey are fond of Cay Sal because of its spectacular reefs, extensive cave systems, and abundant sea life, including the elusive whale shark. Harbor Branch scientists are attracted most to its steep topography between about 300 and 3,000 feet, which suggests that they will find the rocky walls that most commonly foster diverse deep-water ecosystems.

The Cay Sal Bank is located on the edge of a narrow ocean channel that funnels water as well as larvae and plankton from throughout the Caribbean, in all likelihood making for a unique habitat that will yield numerous interesting and potentially lifesaving samples during submersible dives as deep as 3,000 feet. The team will also conduct daily scuba dives in search of shallow-water organisms for biomedical testing.

Though Harbor Branch has used its submersibles to explore the Bahamas extensively since the 1970s, this will be the institution’s first trip to Cay Sal. Almost no information is available about the area’s deepwater habitats. Ultimately, Harbor Branch’s drug discovery group hopes to add to its growing collection of compounds derived from marine organisms that continue to show promise in fighting various forms of cancer and other diseases.

Mark Schrope | EurekAlert!
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