Searching The Ocean's Depths For Future Medicines : Short Wave Plunge into the ocean off the west coast of Ireland...and then keep plunging, down to where there's no light and the temperature is just above freezing. That's where underwater chemist Sam Afoullouss sends a deep sea robot to carefully collect samples of marine organisms. The goal? To search for unique chemistry that may one day inspire a medicine.

Sam talks giant sponges, dumbo octopuses and bubblegum coral with host Emily Kwong – how to use them as a source for drug discovery while also protecting their wild, intricate ecosystems.

Searching The Ocean's Depths For Future Medicines

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You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


KWONG: We are headed to the deep sea today, off the west coast of Ireland. Sam Afoullouss is one of just a handful of people who've seen what lives down there, a mile or more below the surface.

SAM AFOULLOUSS: And out of nowhere, this big, giant sponge appeared - big, giant trumpet sponge, like kind of the equivalent of a gramophone - sticking out from the wall. So it was probably 2 meters wide and maybe 3 meters deep.

KWONG: Now, Sam doesn't dive down to the depths himself. He views what's below through a camera attached to a fancy robot. It reveals a part of our planet that looks like an alien world.

AFOULLOUSS: Branching bamboo corals the size of a tree.

The corals reaching out over cliff edges.

Gigantic sponges.

This tiny little octopus called the Dumbo octopus because it has these little flaps beside his ears that kind of make it look like Dumbo.

KWONG: But Sam's not there to gawk at critters. As an underwater chemist, he's more interested in the chemicals these marine organisms make, chemicals that can be used for drug discovery. We humans have been drawing medicinal inspiration from nature for a long time.

AFOULLOUSS: And that's where most of our medicines come from - derived or inspired by natural sources. And a lot of those come from traditional remedy type of things. Like, aspirin is made from a molecule called salicylic acid, and salicylic acid is found in willow bark and has been used for hundreds of years as a way to treat pain.

KWONG: Many remedies come from indigenous knowledge, and though a lot of today's medicines inspired by nature come from land, Sam says the deep sea has chemicals that can heal, too.

AFOULLOUSS: My favorite one that's been discovered so far is definitely ziconotide. It's a painkiller that's 1,000 times stronger than morphine. Doesn't have any of the addictive side effects that you associate with opioids. And it's found from a sea snail in the tropics.

KWONG: Anti-cancer drugs made from sponge metabolites, analgesic from Caribbean corals - these are just a few potential medicines scientists have discovered from our oceans. The challenge is getting down there.

Today on the show, how the next generation of medicines may be found in the deep sea. I'm Emily Kwong. And you're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


KWONG: When Sam Afoullouss moved to Galway, a coastal city in western Ireland, it was to study chemistry.

AFOULLOUSS: I started studying spider venoms and trying to make antibiotics out of them and anti-cancer medicines.

KWONG: Well, spider venoms were for weekdays, but weekends were for scuba diving.

AFOULLOUSS: I'd spend the night in a place called Connemara, which is a big, major park near here, and I'd be scuba diving the whole time. And the scuba diving got me really, really interested in the marine world. In Ireland, we've gotten rid of most of our wild ecosystems. There's very little forest left and things like that. So for us to experience true wildlife was quite hard.

KWONG: And it was spending time in these very different places, the chem lab and the ocean, that led Sam to a revelation. He could combine these interests by looking for medicines in the deep sea.

AFOULLOUSS: Life on land is boring in comparison to the sea, no doubt about it. And then, as you go deeper, the species diverge more.

KWONG: More biodiversity means more chemical diversity, which is exactly the kind of thing an underwater chemist wants to see, not that you can see much of anything outside of the robotic floodlight. Conditions down there are pretty extreme.

AFOULLOUSS: In the deep sea, there's no light. It's around 4 degrees Celsius, so the kind of temperatures of your fridge, and there's incredibly high pressure. It's kind of the equivalent of having 20 elephants standing on you, if you were to go down that deep. So a pretty extreme environment.

KWONG: Deep-sea creatures have had to adapt to these intense conditions, sometimes using really interesting metabolic chemicals to do it. But first, to study it at all, Sam has to get to these inaccessible places, with the help of underwater robots and their surprisingly gentle arms.

AFOULLOUSS: We can pick up the type of coral that's smaller than, like, the straw that you would get in your Coca-Cola or something like that. And we were able to pick it up from 2 kilometers depth without kind of damaging the other animals around it.

KWONG: Wow. What's so cool about your research, Sam, is you're doing something that people have been doing forever, which is looking for bioactive chemicals that could be medicinal - right? - but in a place that very few people have gone before. So once you collect these kind of hard-to-find samples, what do you do with them?

AFOULLOUSS: Yeah. So when we get back to land, we freeze-dry all of them, so they're dry, kind of the equivalent of tea leaves, and then we extract them.

KWONG: Sam and his colleagues then test these deep-sea extracts on different diseases in the lab.

AFOULLOUSS: A much higher percentage of those are able to kill a disease than what you would find on shallow-water reefs and compared to what you would find if you compared it to land animals or land life, whether it's mushrooms or plants.

KWONG: They've tried them on cancers, malaria, even brain-eating amoebas.

AFOULLOUSS: And if we're lucky, if just, say, we're looking for an anti-cancer drug, one of these extracts will be able to kill that specific type of cancer. And that lets us know that this extract, which is a mixture of maybe a hundred molecules, maybe a thousand molecules from that sponge or that coral, contains at least one molecule with the potential to be turned into a medicine.

KWONG: And once you've identified that individual molecule that has the potential to be a medicine, it can't be as simple as then just saying to the pharmaceutical industry, here, and they get it right to the shelf.


KWONG: What's required to actually move a medicine from sea to shelf?

AFOULLOUSS: Yeah. So it can be quite a task. The first approach and the most traditional approach would have been to take it from nature. But we now know that there's no way that that's sustainable. You'd be destroying these super complex and intricate ecosystems. The second approach is to make it in the lab, to synthesize it. But this is really, really difficult, really, really expensive and uses a lot of things like heavy metals that aren't good for the environment and end up producing a lot of chemical waste. But the most recent technique that everybody's kind of pushing towards as our kind of gold standard is by taking the biological recipe, so the gene, and insert them into something we can grow really easily, like yeast or E. coli, grow them up in a bioreactor, the same way you make beer, and instead of the yeast producing us beer, it's producing us our next generation of medicines.

KWONG: Genetics - amazing. Sam, what is the most interesting thing you've found while looking for medicines in the deep sea?

AFOULLOUSS: So the bubblegum coral is probably one of the - my favorite coral that we've found so far in the deep sea. So it's called a bubblegum coral because it's bright pink like kind of, you know, kid's bubblegum. But there's also the polyps, which are kind of the living part of the coral. When you kind of go up to it and disturb it with the ROV, they retract into themselves, and it looks like kind of the bubblegum that somebody left on the bottom of your school bus. But it's surprisingly beautiful as a coral. And that particular coral showed that - the tea we made from it showed that it was able to kill malaria.

KWONG: They had discovered a new chemical with medicinal potential, and it needed a name. So one day, Sam's niece was watching over his shoulder as he drew the chemical's molecular structure on the computer, and she wanted to help.

AFOULLOUSS: And then half an hour later, she looked at me and was like, have you not figured out what it is yet? And I was like, no, have you? And she was like, yeah, we do this stuff in school all the time - 'cause she thought it was join the dots. And she was like, it's a whale, silly. And I was like, oh, my, thank you, Amelia (ph).


AFOULLOUSS: I was like, you know, where would I be without your help? And she said it with pure sass, as well. It was brilliant. And so because of that, we were like, you know what? It does look like a whale. And in Irish, the word for whale is miol mor. So we decided to name it melianol.

KWONG: How do you feel about what you do?

AFOULLOUSS: I love it. I absolutely love it.


AFOULLOUSS: I genuinely even...


AFOULLOUSS: 'Cause you're using what's been evolving for millions of years to solve our problems of the future, and you're doing it in the traditional way - just applying state-of-the-art techniques to it.


AFOULLOUSS: The deep sea is underexplored, and it's important to highlight how vulnerable they are to our activities. Even though they're out of sight and out of mind, they can't escape our destruction. And I think by showing, as well, that, you know, we can find our new medicine in these complex, understudied ecosystems, it kind of highlights the importance of why we need to protect them.


KWONG: Sam Afoullouss just earned his Ph.D. in Galway, Ireland. You can see pictures of his underwater exploration on the episode page at

This episode was produced by Berly McCoy. It was edited by Gabriel Spitzer and fact-checked by Rachel Carlson. The audio engineer was Gilly Moon. Gisele Grayson is our senior supervising editor. Beth Donovan is our senior director. And Anya Grundmann is our senior vice president of programming. I'm Emily Kwong. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


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