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Searching the depths of the straits of Florida for disease cures

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 http://www.at-sea.org.

"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 potent
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Source:Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution


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