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An international research team, including UvA-biologist Mark Vermeij, made two important advances in the understanding of the molecular diversity as found on coral reefs, as well as the use of this knowledge in the development of medication. The study was published in PNAS this week.

Reefscape with molecules. Photo: Mark Vermeij/UvA

Molecules for immune response

Scientific methods are useful for detecting a great number of molecules produced by organisms for the benefit of an immune response. However, only for a handful of these, scientists understand precisely what they are and how they function. This lack of information is particularly noteworthy on coral reefs. The organisms living there are known for the wide range of molecules they produce, some of which have been turned into life-saving drugs.

Relationship between molecules illuminated

This study makes two advancements in this area. First, the researchers offer a method to glean substantially more information from existing molecular datasets, including information about molecules that are unknown to science. Based on molecular fingerprints, the relationships between tens of thousands of molecules are illuminated. By understanding how molecules are related, scientists can better understand how they are created and what they do for the organisms that make them. This tool is particularly valuable because it requires no new sample collection or measurements; all it requires is an existing dataset, be it from a coral reef or from a human.

Molecular diversity coral reefs explained

Second, this study addressed an unanswered question in coral reef ecology: why are coral reefs sites of incredible molecular diversity? By applying the new method to a dataset of coral reef organisms sampled in the remote and pristine Line Islands, it was revealed that the same molecules are modified in different ways depending on the organism that produced them. Modifications of molecules result in new molecules and can signal the activation of molecules in organisms, such as when they mount an immune response. Thus, the finding that different organisms have their own modification patterns, even among common molecules, offers a new explanation for why molecular diversity is high on coral reefs.

Publication details

Meta-mass shift chemical (MeMSChem) profiling of metabolomes from coral reefs Aaron C. Hartmann, Daniel Petras, Robert A. Quinn, et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, 2017. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1710248114