Pushing Environmental Biomedical Research Out to Sea

11/17/05  Portland, Ore.

Two new marine biologists at OGI study ocean organisms for medicines, removal of pollutants.

Imagine a marine animal that fights cancer. Or a microcsopic sea plant that counteracts the greenhouse effect. Or even marine bacteria that clean up Superfund pollution sites.

These are all plausible scenarios for a pair of well-known marine microbiologists recently recruited to the Department of Environmental and Biomolecular Systems at Oregon Health & Science University's OGI School of Science & Engineering. Brad Tebo, Ph.D., and Margo Haygood, Ph.D., a husband-and-wife pair formerly at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California at San Diego, have gained esteem for research on organisms in ocean systems that shows benefits for human and environmental health.

Their arrival at OGI this fall coincides with a new emphasis in the EBS department on environmental microbiology, a field which examines how the smallest, but most abundant, life forms function in ecosystems and their role in environmental health. EBS is developing new research and teaching programs to further understand the role the environment plays in human health - and how humans impact the environment.

"The appointments of Margo Haygood and Brad Tebo are exciting developments for both OGI and OHSU as a whole," explained Antonio Baptista, Ph.D., professor and chairman of environmental and biomolecular systems at OGI. "Their highly regarded research in the field of marine microbiology is a tremendous addition to OGI's already well-respected environmental research faculty, and it paves the way for important advances in health and well-being achieved through a better understanding of river, estuary and ocean ecosystems. They are also outstanding educators, and integral to OGI's strategy to launch unique M.S. and Ph.D. programs in environmental and biomolecular systems in fall 2006."

Haygood's research focuses on two major areas. The first deals with the study of novel ocean-based compounds that might be developed into new medicines.

"In the past decade or so, scientists have been studying compounds extracted from ocean corals, sponges, marine algae and even marine bacteria that could likely be developed into promising disease-fighting medications," explained Haygood. "For instance, our lab recently cloned a gene found in a marine invertebrate that serves a key role in producing bryostatin, a compound that has strong cancer-fighting properties. With more research, we might be able to produce a synthetic form of this difficult-to-obtain compound in large quantities."

Haygood's lab also studies the role of marine bacteria that control the availability of iron for organisms in the ocean. Iron can be a limiting nutrient in many parts of the world's oceans, and when it is in sufficient quantities it can enhance the growth of microscopic plants that take up carbon dioxide. Some scientists believe a reduction in carbon dioxide in the oceans would also draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, counteracting the highly publicized "greenhouse effect," and its consequence, global warming.

While Tebo's research pursuits also are in the field of marine microbiology, his studies are much different in nature. He specializes in bacteria that change metals from one form to another, specifically with respect to mineral formation - turning metals from dissolved to a solid form. One applied area of his research involves using marine bacteria to remove and detoxify heavy metals in the environment.

"While you can't destroy pure metals, you can change their properties, and hence the amount of toxicity," explained Tebo. "With further research, the properties of these bacteria may be of great value in the pursuit to clean up Superfund pollution sites."

Additional research interests for the Tebo lab include the role of ocean microbes in the breakdown of volcanic glass (basalt) that emerges from undersea volcanoes and bacteria-mineral reactions taking place in the ocean.

"Both students and other faculty members at OHSU will greatly benefit from the appointment of Margo Haygood and Brad Tebo," said Ed Thompson, Ph.D., OGI's dean. "Tebo and Haygood's research expertise also fits nicely with OGI's mission to improve health and well-being through solutions derived from the tight integration of a school of science and engineering with OHSU's health-based research units."

The OGI School of Science & Engineering is the only school of integrated science and engineering focused on major problems of human and ecosystem health, and the only such institution that is a formal part of an academic health center. The school offers master's and doctorate degrees as well as professional development courses. Educational opportunities are available in the fields of: biomedical engineering, computer science and electrical engineering, environmental and biomolecular systems, and management in science and technology. The OGI Department of Environmental and Biomolecular Systems ranks among the nation's top environmental health programs, according to U.S. News and World Report magazine.