Exploring Unknown Deep-Sea Biomedical Resources

MISSION DISPATCH 6 • May 27, 2004

Dispatch by Mark Schrope - @Sea Photo-Journalist

After two more submersible dives on the Miami Terrace on Thursday, we arrived off the Florida Keys before dawn Friday morning above a deepwater area known as the Pourtales Terrace. This terrace stretches offshore from Key Largo to Key West and like the Miami Terrace it is a solid shelf of hard limestone rock bottom, with depths from 600 to 1,000 feet.

Previous research by geologists suggests that a portion of the water in Florida's aquifer seeps out into the ocean throughout this terrace, though the idea has been difficult to prove. The main rock shelf covers the area and is only buried beneath a thin layer of sediment, because the powerful Gulf Stream is constantly scouring it clean. Exposed rocks here have the craggy look of those at Florida's springs, and there are a number of sinkholes though they do not appear to be active anymore as no freshwater flows out of them.

The terrace was first discovered in 1867 by its namesake, Louis Pourtales, who was working aboard the coastal ship Bibb to survey the area in preparation for a planned telegraph line from Key West to Havana.

There had been only one expedition to the Terrace by manned submersible prior to Harbor Branch dives; which was in the early 1990s using the Navy's nuclear submarine called NR-1. Though the sub has portholes it was mainly used to map the seafloor from 50 feet above the bottom, so little information was gathered about the life here.

Then in 1999 and 2001 the Harbor Branch biomedical group explored parts of the terrace (@SEA Mission - Keys to Cures) and used the NR-1 data to plan its dives. They dove into several sinkholes and found them visually incredible, but not as productive as other terrace areas in terms of diversity of life. They did find what appears to have been an ancient gathering place for dugongs, forerunners to Florida's manatees, because one sinkhole bottom was covered with their bones.

On the top areas of the terrace, though, they found an incredible abundance of life including a new species and possibly even new genus of sponge with bright orange fingerlike features. Such a find would be of major scientific importance alone, but the group also found that the sponge produces chemicals with strong cancer-fighting potential, so they are hoping to find more to work with on this trip.

One of yesterday's first dives was in fact targeted at the same rock mound, or lithoherm, where the orange sponge was first found. An unexpectedly strong current kept the sub from reaching it, but John Reed , co-chief scientist from Harbor Branch, says they ended up finding new features that were just as interesting and a diverse array of sponges of all sizes including plate, vase, mound, and bright spherical varieties. The gorgonian soft corals many of the FAU scientists need for their research have been sparse, but there is still plenty of time for looking. Besides the chance to collect more samples, the first submersible dive this morning also gave those aboard the rare opportunity to watch a pair of Mola Mola, or sunfish. These alien-looking fish have a bizarre shape with flat oval bodies, a floppy fin on their top and bottom, and stumpy tails with serpentine, frilled edges that look like they couldn't possibly be of use.

Overall, the habitat below us now is quite different from that of the Miami Terrace, despite the fact that they are both limestone terraces. Now we find individual rock pinnacles and plateaus as opposed to the Miami Terrace's long and well-defined ridges. The depth is also much shallower, making for warmer water. These factors combined support a totally different array of life forms.

Even at this stage in the expedition, everyone is watching when the sub surfaces and straining to see what each bucket holds as the sub is lowered onto the deck. Individual scientists race around checking to see if any samples were collected for their respective projects and we wonder if there is something we've not yet seen.

Yesterday was the first day that the team was able to scuba dive. In Miami we were working too far offshore to make it worthwhile to get divers in to reefs shallow enough for scuba. Here in the Keys we are a little closer and have worked out schedules to allow time near shore.

In the Keys National Marine Sanctuary, boats larger that 100 feet are not normally allowed any closer to the outer reef tract than waters 600 feet deep. One of John Reed's many duties before the expedition was to secure a permit that allows us to come as close as 125-foot depths, not to mention getting a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service authorizing us to collect our samples.

In between submersible dives yesterday and today the ship steamed in to that 125-foot line and then launched small boats to take divers the rest of the way in to the shallower reefs. Divers found beautiful coral areas, some covered in tropical fish such as angels and sergeant majors, as well as gamefish including grouper and snapper. At the end of today's dive, one person spotted a small reef shark.

The Harbor Branch team collected shallow water sponge species, including one that has shown biomedical promise. John Reed also broke open a derelict lobster trap that had lost its surface buoy, so it wouldn't capture and kill unsuspecting sea life that wanders in.

Tonight, the Johnson-Sea-Link I (JSLI) will take the first submersible dive ever that we're aware of aimed at collecting cone snails to allow further study of their venom with its pain-killing and other neurological properties. Tomorrow, we'll continue making our way west along the Keys and we'll keep exploring with tools Louis Pourtales could barely have imagined in the 1800s, and we'll keep viewing the spellbinding seafloor here as he must have wished he could.

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One of the highlights of working on the Pourtales banks has been recollection of a sponge collected here on the last Harbor Branch mission to the Keys that has shown serious cancer fighting potential in laboratory tests.

Called Leiodermatium, it looks something like lasagna noodles bunched together, is hard as a rock, and can grow as large as a microwave oven. Not every sample of the sponge contains the specific cancer-fighting chemical the team has been studying, but tests aboard the ship have shown that at least some of the samples we have now do.

The group still has much work to do studying the new compound before they can determine its true potential. Amy Wright, head of the Harbor Branch Biomedical Marine Research group predicts that the compound is probably produced by microorganisms in the sponge rather than by the sponge itself, but that could take some time to determine.

It takes more than a decade to reach the stage where new drugs can be tested on humans, but everyone is excited at this early stage in the long process.


Getting in the front of the Johnson-Sea-Link I was an exciting experience, especially when the sphere was initially immersed into the water and started to submerge. This transition from the air to a water realm was far more intense than experienced during scuba diving. From the sphere I saw an extremely expanded view of the underwater environment of the Pourtales Terrace at 1280ft. We first landed on a rocky outcrop and within the first 5 minutes a black soft coral was within sight. This made sample number one of the day and almost filled the front collection basket. Due to curving of the sphere the sample appeared smaller than its actual size. In addition the objects viewed through the sphere appeared closer than they actually were.

However, the skilled sub pilot quickly collected the coral sample without any problems. Moving on to 1050 feet, a large colony of white bamboo coral came in sight on a rocky ledge overhang covered with live Lophelia hard coral. This made sample number 2 and filled up the front collection basket. At this point of the dive we had about one hour of collection time left and we moved on to explore several other rocky overhangs where we were able to collect various sponges and gorgonians. We collected 12 samples on this dive alone.

Back on the R/V Seward Johnson the samples were numbered and photographed. We then took the coral samples back to the Environmental lab, where they were processed and flash frozen for later experiments back in the laboratories at FAU.
Center of Excellence in Biomedical and Marine Biotechnology

The Center of Excellence was created with $10 million in state funding in 2003. It is based at FAU and combines the expertise of Harbor Branch, Florida International University, Nova Southeastern University, the Smithsonian Marine Station at Ft. Pierce, and several private companies.

The overall goal for the Center of Excellence is to promote the discovery, development, and commercialization in Florida of new medicines and other products. Center funding is intended as seed money to further expand Florida's emerging marine biotechnology industry over the next two years with the goal of attracting longer-term funding from federal and commercial sources.

Besides funding one expedition per year, Center of Excellence money is being used to:
    1) support graduate students that will expand the biotechnology workforce

    2) design and build a high-definition camera system that can be carried on an AUV to map new seafloor sites

    3) to purchase equipment that will greatly enhance member institutions' ability to rapidly and accurately analyze the pharmaceutical potential of new chemical compounds.
To learn more visit www.floridabiotech.org

© 2005, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution