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Penicillin’s kin found in ocean ‘dead’ spot

TEXAS A&M (US) — Scientists have uncovered fungi that could be at least 100 million years old and say they are related to the species used to make penicillin.

Discovering life at such incredible depths—more than 350 feet below the ocean floor and 12,000 feet under the water—could raise new questions about how life forms are able to exist in the most extreme environments.

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Heath Mills, assistant professor of oceanography at Texas A&M University, and colleagues found fungi in sediments that could be at least 100 million years old, some of which belong to the genus penicillium, from which penicillin is derived.

Their findings have been published in a recent article of Nature magazine.

Mills and the team examined sediment cores taken from an area of the Pacific Ocean during a 2010 research trip conducted by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program.

They found several types of fungal species and were successful in growing four types in a lab setting.

“We were amazed that these fungi were alive and they could possibly be 100 million years old,” Mills explains. “We examined them closer and found they were directly related to penicillin fungi. Needless to say, it was an exciting discovery and not something that we had expected.”

“When you find life forms hundreds of feet below the ocean seafloor and at extreme depths in the ocean, this is life adapted for some of the harshest extremes on the planet,” says Mills.

“It raises new questions about how life can continue to exist. It also raises new questions about whatever life forms we could find in similar locations around the world.

“These cores were taken at one of the ‘deadest’ places on Earth, sites where you would not expect to find life. The fungi may have developed their own defense systems against harmful bacteria, and if that is true, how could these be used in medicines today? Is this a new form of penicillin, and if so, could it be stronger than what we have currently?

“All of these are questions that we need to examine,” Mills adds. “This discovery is important on several different levels.”

Former Texas A&M graduate student Brandi Kiel Reese, now at the University of Southern California, and current graduate student Martha Ariza also contributed to the project, which the Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations and the National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center funded.

Source: Texas A&M University

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