Marine bacteria could help treat human diseases

By Mohamed Hassan

File photo / NZ Herald
File photo / NZ Herald

The largest ever sample of the world's marine bacteria could be an important step towards treating human diseases, an Auckland researcher says.

New Zealand will take part in the first simultaneous sampling of all the world's oceans as part of "Micro B3 Ocean Sampling Day" on June 20.

The project, at 150 sites worldwide, is spearheaded by Germany's Jacobs University and the University of Oxford in the UK, and will include researchers from the universities of Auckland and Otago.

Next Friday's event aims to collect and share information on marine bacteria from every part of the world.

An enormous database of genetic information will then be set up and made available to marine scientists and research institutions worldwide.

Auckland University Associate Professor of Marine Science, Mark Costello, said it would be the first time a standard sampling method had been applied in different parts of the world.

It's important, he said, because of what can be learnt about the uniqueness of marine bacteria DNA.

Half of all marine animals and plants in New Zealand waters are unique, but our bacteria may have things in common with the rest of the world.

"There's a theory that for small things, everything is everywhere," Mr Costello said.

"So I suspect that we'll find that we'll find a lot of bacterial DNA that's the same."

He said understanding the DNA of microorganisms such as bacteria is vital for research into human diseases, because it helps scientists understand how our genetic code works.

"When they create the DNA database, they can then look at these patterns of the DNA and look at possible functions of some of the genes."

Understanding DNA was similar to reading a book in a strange language, he said.

"They will know what parts of it mean, and they can make models and try to predict what these other genes are, then start focusing on some of the genes, and see if they have particular functions."

Mr Costello said marine bacteria are of particular interest, because they're the oldest types of bacteria in the world.

"They've survived all the mass extinctions on Earth. They were there before the Earth had oxygen, so the marine environment has the greatest bacterial diversity."

- APNZ

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