In the Murphy Lab at UIC, we aim to collaborate with citizen scientists and engage in the discovery of new antibiotics from Great Lakes sponges. With help of divers throughout the Midwest, we have begun this exploration by collecting sponge samples and data on sponge community locations. Permissions to collect from the aquatic environment and historic shipwrecks where sponges are often found have been acquired from all necessary state and province natural resource and historic preservation departments. In our first year, we have collected forty samples from shipwrecks, seawalls, rocks, and logs in the Great Lakes and nearby waterways. Chemical compounds and microbial DNA have been extracted from each sample with a portion of sponge processed to encourage the growth of a diversity of microbes on nutrient Petri plates. This has resulted in forty chemical extracts and more than 600 bacterial plates for drug discovery efforts.
Additionally, we have identified the species of fourteen sponges through a collaboration with the world’s leading freshwater sponge experts, Drs. Manconi and Pronzato of the Universities of Sassari and Genoa, respectively. Exploration of species-specific composition of sponge microbial communities are underway.
Armed with background literature and a protocol in the field identification and collection of freshwater sponges, citizen scientist collection expeditions have driven our discovery efforts. We send collection materials and a collection information sheet assembled as a “Sponge Collection Kit” to our collaborators so they may collect samples while diving and ship them ‘next-day’ to our laboratory. This “citizen science” aspect of the proposal is highly novel.
Once sponge samples are processed, we use robust natural products chemistry to determine the diversity and drug-lead potential of the small molecules that they produce. Concurrently, sponge taxonomic classification is assigned by the Manconi and Pronzato labs in Italy. Microscopic analysis of sponge spicules allows for sponge identification, often to the sub-species level, while associated microbial populations are documented in our labs using high-throughput gene sequencing. Our studies aim not only to generate new drug-leads, but also to raise awareness of poorly understood freshwater sponge populations in the Great Lakes; these complimentary aims will serve to aid in future conservation efforts.