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Methods. 2007 Aug;42(4):358-76.

Biomedicinals from the phytosymbionts of marine invertebrates: a molecular approach.

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  • 1Australian Institute of Marine Science, Townsville, Queensland, Australia.


Marine invertebrate animals such as sponges, gorgonians, tunicates and bryozoans are sources of biomedicinally relevant natural products, a small but growing number of which are advancing through clinical trials. Most metazoan and anthozoan species harbour commensal microorganisms that include prokaryotic bacteria, cyanobacteria (blue-green algae), eukaryotic microalgae, and fungi within host tissues where they reside as extra- and intra-cellular symbionts. In some sponges these associated microbes may constitute as much as 40% of the holobiont volume. There is now abundant evidence to suggest that a significant portion of the bioactive metabolites thought originally to be products of the source animal are often synthesized by their symbiotic microbiota. Several anti-cancer metabolites from marine sponges that have progressed to pre-clinical or clinical-trial phases, such as discodermolide, halichondrin B and bryostatin 1, are thought to be products derived from their microbiotic consortia. Freshwater and marine cyanobacteria are well recognised for producing numerous and structurally diverse bioactive and cytotoxic secondary metabolites suited to drug discovery. Sea sponges often contain dominant taxa-specific populations of cyanobacteria, and it is these phytosymbionts (= photosymbionts) that are considered to be the true biogenic source of a number of pharmacologically active polyketides and nonribosomally synthesized peptides produced within the sponge. Accordingly, new collections can be pre-screened in the field for the presence of phytobionts and, together with metagenomic screening using degenerate PCR primers to identify key polyketide synthase (PKS) and nonribosomal peptide synthetase (NRPS) genes, afford a biodiscovery rationale based on the therapeutic prospects of phytochemical selection. Additionally, new cloning and biosynthetic expression strategies may provide a sustainable method for the supply of new pharmaceuticals derived from the uncultured phytosymbionts of marine organisms.

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