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Diving into Science Diplomacy

January 3, 2018
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David Sherman in Cuba.

Early in her college career, Amy Fraley set her sights on becoming a marine biologist. She decided that getting her scuba diving certification would be key in achieving that goal, allowing her to immerse herself in the ecosystems she was studying.

Now a graduate student at the University of Michigan College of Pharmacy and a researcher in the lab of David Sherman, at the U-M Life Sciences Institute, Fraley has made a few changes to her plans. She swapped her marine biology major for a chemistry major, and swapped her tropical diving ambitions for cold-water diving on shipwrecks in the Great Lakes.

But Fraley was right about the usefulness of that diving certification. It helped her secure a spot on an expedition to build scientific collaborations in Cuba recently, where strict barriers have prevented access for more than half a century.

“It was very serendipitous that I found David’s lab, because at the time I didn’t know much about his research,” Fraley recalls. “It turns out, it was exactly what I wanted to be doing.”

Sherman’s research program studies the complex biological compounds made inside microorganisms. Known as “natural products,” these bioactive substances are often associated with defense mechanisms that have evolved over millions of years.

The principal idea behind the research is to harness the power of these chemical reactions, letting nature perform transformations that would be overly laborious if not impossible to do at the bench. Many of the best-known antibiotics are natural products — like rapamycin, which comes from bacteria found in an Easter Island soil sample and is now an FDA-approved immunosuppressant.

This research has taken Sherman from the depths of the Red Sea to the Mount Everest Base Camp in the Himalayas in search of new organisms and natural products that could form the basis of future medicines.

The trip to Cuba was different. This was a relationship-building trip that is essential to building any research collaborations.

The opportunity arrived when Sherman was contacted about a trip organized by the Cuban Marine Research and Conservation Program, or CubaMar. As a project of the Ocean Foundation, CubaMar encourages scientific research collaborations between Cuba, the United States and other neighboring countries, with the goal of improving marine conservation practices and policy in a country where political isolation has long impeded scientific progress.

During their 10-day trip in August, Sherman and Fraley encountered a broad range of fungi and cyanobacteria, much like those the lab typically works with, while exploring caves in Guanahacabibes National Park and Viñales and diving in nine ecologically diverse sites within the Maria la Gorda reef system.

Most importantly, they met with several scientists with whom they hope to build collaborations.

“This was a great opportunity, even though it was clear we weren’t going to have time to get permits in place to collect any samples while we were there,” Sherman said. “Especially in places like Cuba, you really have to make connections with people ahead of time.”

The hope is that the alliances formed during this trip will enable the scientists to begin developing projects that will benefit research in both countries.

“Without these collaborations, neither side can really tap into the potential of the biodiversity there,” Fraley explained. “As Americans, we can’t go near the coastal regions without permission from the Cuban government, and that has to come through connections with the university researchers and marine scientists working in Cuba. And, on the other side, the tools and techniques we’ve built in our program at U-M don’t really have a counterpart there yet.”

A master diver himself, Sherman is looking forward to gaining greater access to the reefs — where he hopes to discover new organisms and molecules to add to U-M’s library of more than 30,000 natural product extracts.

“Because of a general lack of tourism, their reefs are relatively pristine,” Sherman said. “The starting point for so much of our work is the microbes that come from these biologically diverse hotspots that we collect in.

“Unique biodiversity corresponds to unique genetic diversity, which in turn corresponds to unique chemistry in the organisms’ secondary metabolism — and that is ultimately what we’re interested in,” he added.

During their trip, Fraley and Sherman observed the novel approaches that Cuban marine ecologists have developed for regrowing damaged coral. These methods might help efforts to rescue U.S. reefs, which are on pace to disappear as early as the coming two to three decades.

David Sherman getting ready to dive in the reef.

The Cuban researchers, too, stand to benefit from collaboration with Sherman’s lab, gaining access to technology and techniques that are unavailable in their country — such as advanced DNA sequencing. “We could help in so many ways in that area alone,” Sherman noted.

The benefits of this type of open, collaborative science can extend far beyond the specific researchers or labs involved. Sherman’s collaborations, for example, often lead to the characterization of new natural products, which researchers across academia and industry can analyze for their disease-fighting capabilities.

Sherman and his colleagues have been building up a natural products library at the LSI that complements the university’s synthetic chemistry library, which is also accessible to other U-M researchers and outside groups through the LSI’s Center for Chemical Genomics.

“The fact that we have a natural product library in addition to the synthetic chemistry library allows investigators to essentially screen both types of compounds to find the best agents for their targets,” Sherman said. “So, we want this library to be as diverse as possible.”

Sherman is hopeful that the recent inroads to Cuba will continue to allow for such links, even if the current thaw in relations between the U.S. and Cuba does not continue.

“I think there’s hope, because there are still active interactions and collaborations between the U.S., CubaMar and the Cuban scientists,” Sherman says. “Things are heading in the right direction.”

(The story first appeared in Life Science Institute.)
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