Biological gold in the hills

Luke Henderson, Contributor Ω

A microbiologist and instructor at TRU has discovered bacteria new to science while exploring caves in Wells Grey Provincial Park.

Dr. Naowarat Cheeptham discovered these bacteria while bioprospecting, a term used to describe searching for new life forms for practical use and commercialization. She hopes to discover microbes that could be used in the pharmaceutical industry to benefit humans.

“Can we use their compounds they produce to our benefit? Such as anti-cancer agents or anti-microbial agents?” Cheeptham said.

Cheeptham chose the caves because of their extreme ecological nature.

“When you talk of darkness, you don’t have primary producers for energy, they complete the food web,” she said. “If you don’t have photosynthesis where do you get the energy from?

“Caves are actually a near-starved environment.”

This was the first bioprospecting in volcanic caves to take place in Canada. Cheeptham expected the life forms to match the uniqueness of their environment.

“Wouldn’t they have unique metabolic pathways to be able to produce something new for us?” she said. “We can make use of their metabolic diversity.”

During her exploration, Cheeptham did discover a strain of Actinomycete bacteria that may be beneficial to the agricultural industry.   The bacteria, at this time only known as E9, has shown anti-microbial properties against Paenibacillus larvae, a destructive honeybee killer that causes foulbrood disease.

Entering isolated environments, such as caves, is not a simple matter.

“You have to be aware that every action you do in the cave can change the native microbial community,” Cheeptham said.

This isn’t the first time Cheeptham has undergone an expedition in search of new life forms. She has also done research exploring ocean sediment from Tokyo Bay.

Cheeptham is not alone in her bioprospecting.

Soricimed Biopharma Inc. is a Canadian-based company in Sackville, N.B., that specializes in discovering and utilizing new microbes.

The company’s mission statement is: “To advance the health and wellness of humanity by developing globally applicable cancer and pain management platforms.”

Bioprospecting walks a fine line of serving human needs and financial gain.

“On the one hand, our mission is to discover and deliver medical innovation to treat unmet medical management needs in various disease conditions,” Biopharma’s website stated. “On the other, our target customer/collaborator is the traditional pharmaceutical industry.”

Recently a group of researchers discovered new microbes in some of the world’s deepest caves in Lechuguilla , N.M. The bacteria found have been in absolute isolation from the outside world, but have built-in antibodies, according to an article posted in http://www.sciencedaily.com.

The bacteria are resistant to nearly every antibiotic in use by medical doctors. These bacteria are challenging scientists’ understanding of bacteria.

“Maybe bacteria harbor more antibiotic producing genes that we haven’t discovered,” Cheeptham said. “The purpose of bioprospecting gives us info we didn’t have before.

“There is other knowledge to be gained from this.”