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60,000-Year-Old Forest Uncovered Underwater, May Help Create New Medicines

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  • These ancient trees may hold the secret to making new medicines.
  • The wood retrieved contained more than 300 animals, including shipworms.
  • The samples are being studied to see their potential in producing food, animal feeds, textile, paper, fine chemicals, and renewable fuels.

A forest of cypress trees grew on a riverbank near the Gulf of Mexico thousands of years ago. Eventually, these trees grew old, fell, and got buried under sediment.

The remains of this forest were covered once again when the sea level rose. Now after nearly 60,000, these trees were finally discovered by scientists today.

The experts believe that these ancient trees may hold the secret to making new medicines, which will help save more lives in the future.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), this ancient forest remained undisturbed for a millenia. When Hurricane Ivan hit the Gulf Coast in 2004, the seabed was swept up, keeping the forest entombed with sediment.

The site, which is now submerged 60 feet underwater off the Alabama’s coast in Mobile Bay, has since been visited by scientists and filmmakers. It was just on December last year that scientists from the University of Utah and Northeastern University went on a expedition sponsored by the NOAA.

They dived into the bay and retrieved pieces of wood that they can examine.

Brian Helmuth, who is a professor of marine and environmental sciences at Northeastern University, was among those teams of scientists. He described it as “like diving on chocolate milk” because they could not see their hands in front of their faces, literally.

He said that the conditions then were not so ideal. Dive teams who went before them encountered sharks in the area, which made the expedition risky. But when the scientists were able to get to the forest, they were just amazed.

“It was really amazing. We dove around the edge of this ancient river bed. On our left were these remains of giant stumps and pristine wood coming out of the bank embankment. Even though the visibility wasn’t great, you could pretty easily imagine it being the edge of a cypress forest and it was almost an eerie feeling of stepping back in time,” Helmuth said.

The wood was extremely well-preserved even if it was 60,000 years old. It was buried under layers of sediment, which prevented oxygen from coming in and decomposing it.

They took the wood to the lab and what they found excited them further. They were able to see the kind of organisms that got into the ancient wood, the different types of animals buried within, and the type of animals living on top of the wood itself.

More than 300 animals were recovered from the wood. However, the scientists were most interested on one particular animal: shipworms.

These were a type of clam that transforms wood into animal tissue.

Shipworms are actually common and can be found in most oceans where wood was found. What was previously undiscovered was the bacteria that has been living inside the shipworms for thousands of years.

According to Margo Haygood, a research professor of medicinal chemistry at University of Utah, “We were able to isolate bacteria from them and get some bacteria that we haven’t worked with before, so we’re really excited about that.”

Around 100 strains of bacteria was produced by the shipworms from the ancient wood. A number of them are novel. Some are now going through DNA sequencing in order to evaluate their potential to make new drug treatments.

Aside from life-saving medicines, the samples are being studied to see their potential in producing food, animal feeds, textile, paper, fine chemicals, and renewable fuels.

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