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Weapons Of Microscopic Destruction

Canadian chemists are probing Mother Nature’s secret laboratories­ in the search for disease-fighting molecules.

A  coral reef is a place of opulent wonder, with schools of iridescent, psychedelic fish as well as colourful sponges, sea urchins, anemones and coral polyps, awash in currents teeming with microorganisms. But the beauty is deceiving, for this watery nirvana is host to fierce battles of survival — many in the form of chemical warfare.

Lacking the ability to swim, crawl, bite or scratch, organisms like sponges have devised their own little chemical weapons laboratories. Woe to the hapless creature that chomps on a sponge, or the invertebrate muscling in on sponge territory. The toxins released will cause the invader to either flee — or die.

Such chemicals are elixir to natural products researchers, who gathered this past August for the annual two-day Maritime Natural Products Conference, hosted by Saint Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S. The conference drew representatives from the biotechnology and food supplement industries, while students from the undergrad to postdoc level presented papers, says organizer and StFX assistant professor of chemistry Darren Derksen. Potential applications of natural products embraced health, nutraceuticals (health foods) and personal care products. The sources of the natural products spanned the planet, from fungi in plants to weeds, and all manner of sea creatures.