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When Prof Mat Upton discovered a microbe from a deep-sea sponge was killing pathogenic bugs in his laboratory, he realised it could be a breakthrough in the fight against antibiotic resistant superbugs, which are responsible for thousands of deaths a year in the UK alone.
Further tests last year confirmed that an antibiotic from the sponge bacteria, found living more than 700 metres under the sea at the Rockall trough in the north-east Atlantic, was previously unknown to science, boosting its potential as a life-saving medicine.
But Upton, and other scientists who view the deep ocean and its wealth of unique and undocumented species as a prospecting ground for new medicines, fear such potential will be lost in the rush to exploit the deep sea’s equally rich metal and mineral resources.
“We’re looking at the bioactive potential of marine resources, to see if there are any more medicines or drugs down there before we destroy it for ever,” says Upton, a medical microbiologist at the University of Plymouth. He is among many scientists urging a halt to deep-sea mining, asking for time to weigh up the pros and cons.
“We know sponges are a very good source of bioactive bacteria so I would say they would be a good source of antibiotics and anti-cancer drugs too. In sustainability terms, this could be a better way of exploiting the economic potential of the deep sea.”