Scripps lab prepares to welcome spectrometer

A factoid from the Food and Drug Administration has me wanting to overcook my Christmas turkey.

Last week, the FDA announced that it would begin seeking to phase out the use of antibiotics on livestock. It was noted that the FDA had released a report in April 2013 that found 81 percent of the ground turkey it tested was contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. With that in mind, I don’t think I’ll care if the bird comes out of the oven a little dry.

The march of antibiotic resistance was one of the scarier pieces of news in a year that already provided several sobering moments from the science world.

My unease is at least tempered by the note of hope offered by the Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine (CMBB) at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. CMBB is one of the world’s leading centers for exploring the oceans for drug therapies for cancers, bacterial infections and other difficult diseases. If all goes according to plan, its pace of discovery will increase exponentially.

CMBB plans to soon acquire a special microscope that the center’s director Bill Fenical says could “cut discovery time down fivefold.” The microscope is called a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer.

Once it arrives on the Scripps campus, this instrument will be housed by itself in a room, one that becomes completely inhospitable to pacemakers, cellphones and microwaves when the spectrometer is in operation. It generates a magnetic field several stories high.

The spectrometer is such a behemoth because it needs a sufficient amount of magnetic energy to analyze the chemical structure of promising compounds that Fenical and his colleagues find in seafloor mud, the secretions of marine animals used as self-defense, and elsewhere in marine environments.

A spectrometer like this is powerful enough to harness the magnetic properties of hydrogen itself to force its atoms and carbon atoms into alignments that help scientists see natural chemicals in their most fundamental state. “It’s the only way to know what we’re really working with,” Fenical says.

The lab has a 15-year old version of the spectrometer, which runs like a car with 300,000 miles on it. It has about 12 good months left, Fenical reckons. When instruments like these need to be serviced, technicians are flown out from their place of manufacture. As Fenical notes, the service call runs $2,000 before the specialist even arrives.

To keep costs down, Fenical’s students have learned over the years how to maintain it themselves. It can be dicey letting someone train on such sophisticated instruments, but at least it has provided an incomparable hands-on education. Some of those students have gone on to work for spectrometer manufacturers.

With its current equipment, Fenical’s lab is breaking down a compound that has shown promise in fighting melanoma. Several potential marine-based antibiotics are being analyzed that may come to the rescue of society, which is in a losing battle against drug-resistant bacteria strains that have been allowed to proliferate through the overuse of terrestrially based antibiotics.

The number of potential therapies in the pipeline only stands to increase as CMBB’s capabilities expand. I’ll be glad to be around to witness this growth, especially around mealtimes.

To learn more about how you can get involved in CMBB discoveries, visit our support website.

Monroe is editor of UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography explorations now online magazine.

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