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The Hunt for Antibiotics

Deep in the cold waters of the world’s oceans lurk marine organisms which could hold the key to one of the biggest challenges of modern medicine – resistance to antibiotics. The widespread use and misuse of antibiotics is leading to the development of strains of bacteria that are not susceptible to standard drug treatments. The World Health Organisation has warned that rising resistance to antibiotics could mean the “end of modern medicine as we know it”.

The PharmaSea project is part of a worldwide mission traveling to remote locations in China, New Zealand, Chile, Antarctica, the Arctic and the South African coastline. Scientists collaborating on the PharmaSea project, including a group of IMBM researchers from the University of the Western Cape, are hoping that organisms found, such as deep-sea sponges and bacteria, could help create vital new antibiotics. Samples collected by the collaborators in the PharmaSea project will be analyzed at the state of the art labs at the University of Tromso.

Dr Joff Lacey joins a team of scientists in Norway hoping to discover the next antibiotic in the fjords of Norway. Species and organisms that are collected on each expedition are meticulously sorted and then tested for their ability to kill bacteria.

IMBM student writes a feature in l​​atests edition of Quest magazine

Read Gerda du Plessis’s article on her expedition to the Southern Ocean and microbes from the ocean  in the latest issue of Quest Magazine on page 23. 

IMBM involved in €9m EU-project​​​

Prof Marla Tuffin, Acting Director of IMBM, leads the UWC research team, and includes Prof Michael Davies-Coleman, in a new EU-FP7 funded project called PharmaSea, which was launched in October 2012. The press release follows:​

Logo_Pharmasea_final ​IMBM LOGO_FA

The collaborative project PharmaSea will bring European researchers to some of the deepest, coldest and hottest places on the planet. Scientists from the UK, Belgium, Norway, Spain, Ireland, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Denmark will work together to collect and screen samples of mud and sediment from huge, previously untapped, oceanic trenches. The large-scale, four-year project is backed by more than €9.5 million of EU funding and brings together 24 partners from 14 countries from industry, academia and non-profit organisations, including scientists from the University of the Western Cape.


Colourful sea squirt / Cold water Ascidiaceae, a Botryllus specie, 

Copyright: Kirsti Helland, Marbio, University of Tromsø, Norway

The PharmaSea project focuses on biodiscovery research and the development and commercialisation of new bioactive compounds from marine organisms, including deep-sea sponges and bacteria, to evaluate their potential as novel drug leads or ingredients for nutrition or cosmetic applications. The international team of scientists is led by Professor Marcel Jaspars of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, and coordinated by Dr. Camila Esguerra of the University of Leuven in Belgium.

One of the aims of PharmaSea is to discover new marine bacteria that can produce novel antibiotics: “There’s a real lack of good antibiotics in development at the moment. There hasn’t been a completely new antibiotic registered since 2003. If nothing’s done to combat this problem we’re going to be back to a ‘pre-antibiotic-era’ in around ten or twenty years, where bugs and infections that are currently quite simple to treat could be fatal”, says Marcel Jaspars, who is Professor of Chemistry and Director of the Marine Biodiscovery Centre at the University of Aberdeen. PharmaSea will also focus on drug discovery for neurological, inflammatory, and other infectious diseases.

Only a handful of samples have ever been taken from deep trenches and investigated, so the project is breaking new ground. “PharmaSea will not only be exploring new territory at the bottom of the oceans, but also new areas in ‘chemical space’. With our broad platform of cutting-edge bioassays to detect drug-like activity, we’ll be testing many unique chemical compounds from these marine samples that have literally never seen the light of day. We’re quite hopeful that we’ll find a number of exciting new drug leads”, says Dr. Camila Esguerra, Industrial Research Fellow and Lecturer with the Laboratory for Molecular Biodiscovery at the University of Leuven,


Arctic Collection in 2009 with Project Leader Marcel Jaspars,

 Copyright: Marcel Jaspars, University of Aberdeen

​The international team will employ strategies commonly used in the salvage industry to carry out the sampling. Using fishing vessels, researchers will drop a sampler on a reel of cables to the trench bed to collect sediment. Scientists will then attempt to grow unique bacteria and fungi from the sediment that can be extracted to isolate novel drug-like molecules for pharmacological testing. Partners from China, Chile, Costa Rica, New Zealand and South Africa will support the PharmaSea project. The first field tests will be carried out next autumn in the Atacama Trench in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, about 100 miles off the coast of Chile and Peru. The team will also search the Arctic waters off Norway and the Antarctic via Italian and South African partners. Deep trenches will also be accessed off New Zealand and China.

Marine organisms that live more than 2,000 meters below the sea level are considered to be an interesting source of novel bioactive compounds as they survive under extreme conditions. “Trenches are separated from each other and represent islands of diversity. They are not connected to each other and life has evolved differently in each one,” explains Marcel Jaspars.

Further information:

Information for editors:
CONTACT Communication:
Annette Langbehn
Phone: +49 30 26492171
Email: press(at)
Euan Wemyss
University of Aberdeen, King’s College (Office of External Affairs)
Phone: +44 1224 272960
Email: e.wemyss(at)


  • · University of Leuven (Belgium)
  • · The University of Aberdeen (UK)
  • · Aquapharm Biodiscovery Ltd (UK)
  • · University of Tromsø (Norway)
  • · eCoast Research Centre (Belgium)
  • · Biobridge Ltd (UK)
  • · Fundación MEDINA (Spain)
  • · University College Cork, National University of Ireland
  • · BIOCOM AG (Germany)
  • · Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn (Italy)
  • · Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche ibp-cnr (Italy)
  • · University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain)
  • · The Royal Society of Chemistry (UK)
  • · c-LEcta GmbH (Germany)
  • · Technical University of Denmark
  • · Deep Tek Ltd (UK)
  • · Advanced Chemistry Development UK Ltd
  • · Wuhan University (China)
  • · Institute of Microbiology – Chinese Academy of Sciences (China)
  • · University of the Western Cape (South Africa)
  • · Institute for Cell Dynamics and Biotechnology (Chile)
  • · National Biodiversity Institute of Costa Rica
  • · International Union for Conservation of Nature (Switzerland)
  • · University of Waikato (New Zealand)

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