"These molecular structures are curious in the way carbon atoms are attached," Kubanek said. "It's very unusual. They represent a new category of organic molecules. It's exciting as a biochemist to observe that living organisms have evolved the ability to synthesize such unique and exotic structures compared to other molecules typically produced by seaweeds."
The source of these new molecular structures is a red seaweed (Callophycus serratus) collected from four Fijian sites. Among the sites, researchers found variations in the molecular structures produced by the species.
"There are chemical differences among populations of this seaweed species, even though two of the sites where it was collected are only about 2 kilometers apart," Kubanek noted. "? This shows us there are small, but valuable differences within species, and this genetic biodiversity is important to protect as a resource for the future." Researchers have been analyzing extracts from about 200 marine plant and invertebrate animal samples they collected from the Fijian coral reef in June 2004 with the permission of the Fijian government and local resource owners.
"Marine organisms make molecules for their own purposes that we might co-opt for our own use as pharmaceutical agents," Kubanek explained. "The organisms' purposes include defense against predators, the ability to fight diseases, and the production of chemical cues, such as those used for sex recognition."
Hay, Kubanek, and their colleagues collected baseball-sized samples of reef species that exhibit unusual growth and/or behavioral phenomena. Among their collection were soft corals, marine sponges, slugs, and green, red and brown seaweeds.