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Recently discovered deep-sea reefs catch the attention of the drug discovery team

er a quick personnel and equipment turnaround, Harbor Branch researchers will return to the Miami area on a separate expedition from May 31 to June 9 to conduct the first in depth survey of deep reef areas in the region to better assess the ecological importance of the reefs and to identify factors responsible for their incredible diversity.

Researchers typically have to spend hours using a ship depth sounder to map an area before determining where to do submersible dives because maps detailed enough to show the telltale mounds and other features of deepwater reefs simply do not exist for the bulk of the seafloor. With such little information available, Grasmueck compares typical seafloor exploration to arriving on the bottom of the Grand Canyon at night with a flashlight and then attempting to ascertain the significance and topography of the whole canyon based on small swaths revealed by the flashlight. The Miami AUV work has instead made it possible to choose dive sites likely to be vibrant reef areas ahead of time, all with an understanding of the full system being explored.

The expedition will have two main goals. First, the team will use the submersible to explore those seafloor areas that appear most promising based on their sonar map contours. As this "ground truthing" work progresses, the team will be able to better predict correlations between map data and biodiversity on the bottom. Ultimately this will allow them to more accurately assess the ecological importance of the entire area, not just those small swaths observed from the submersible.

During each submersible dive, Harbor Branch experts will be collecting samples of organisms such as sponges and corals that will be tested to determine if they, or microorganisms living within them, produce chemicals with pharmaceutical potential. A key goal is to find and collect organisms that have never been seen, which happens on almost every one of the Harbor Branch team's e
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