Research Highlight: Red Sea

Diving for New Drugs in the Red Sea

The Life Sciences Institute's David Sherman explores biochemical pathways of marine microorganisms with the goal of finding new drug candidates to treat infectious diseases and cancers. To collect the samples he needs for his work, he often trades his lab coat for a wet suit and travels to exotic locations rich in biodiversity resources. In November 2014, Sherman traveled with fellow LSI faculty member and frequent collaborator Georgios (Yiorgo) Skiniotis, a structural biologist, to Saudi Arabia to collect marine microorganisms from the Red Sea. This is a diary of their expedition.

Nov. 13: Marine Biotechnology and Drug Discovery course, King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah

Jeddah at night

We were invited to the King Abudulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia by Professor Diaa Youssef of the Faculty of Pharmacy to give a three-day course in Marine Biotechnology and Drug Discovery. For the last couple of days, lectures were presented Laurent Meijer (ManRos Therapeutics, France), Kerry McPhail (Oregon State University), Jean Vacelet (CNRS, France), Georgios Skiniotis (U-M LSI) and myself. Attendees included faculty, graduate students and Pharm.D. students. Each day included lectures in the morning, a coffee break, prayer break, afternoon lectures and then a late lunch.

Following conclusion of the short course, we had an extensive tour of the research complex at KAU. They have phenomenal facilities with the latest state-of-the-art equipment. The King is very supportive of research, and there appears to be considerable growth at the university in terms of expanded facilities, buildings and infrastructure.

Today, we travel to Yanbu on the Red Sea coast north of Jeddah (~3.5 hours by car). More blog posts from there once we hit the water.

—David Sherman

Nov. 14-15 (Dive days 1-2): Yanbu

Our team (Diaa Youssef, Kerry McPhail, Yiorgo Skiniotis, Jean Vacelet, David Sherman and two additional support divers) left Jeddah on Thursday afternoon and arrived in Yanbu, on the western Arabian Peninsula coast, at about 10 p.m.The weekend begins on Thursday night in Jeddah

The weekend in Saudi Arabia is Friday-Saturday, so families were out on the town, going to restaurants and generally relaxing. Traffic was incredibly heavy and we inched out of Jeddah for about an hour before the roads opened up just outside the city limits. 

As we approached our destination, the road skirted for several miles along Yanbu Industrial Park, a huge refinery facility.  In this place where oil is cheaper than water at <$1 USD a gallon, most cars are very large. (We traveled with all of our gear in a supersized Chevrolet Suburban.) The air along this highway smells of everything petroleum, and you are immediately reminded that this hot, dusty land is sitting on a sea of oil.  The lights and industrial superstructure and the intermittent oil flares seemed to go on forever.

After a short stop at the dive shop to meet with our guide, we arrived at our destination, Al-Ahlam, and went for a very late dinner. Meal times in Saudi Arabia are different than in the U.S. Breakfast is early, but lunch is typically taken at about 2-3 p.m., and dinner is typically at 9 p.m. or later.  We finally fell into bed at about 12:30 a.m., facing a 5:30 a.m. wake-up time.

Sunset in Yanbu

Breakfast at 6 a.m. that next morning was going to be our last serious meal for about nine hours, so despite the general lack of appetite we appreciated the egg omelets, fresh pita bread, gorgeous vegetables, and Arabic coffee (a green coffee laced with cardamom—I have not yet learned how it is made). Black tea with mint leaves is also a refreshing breakfast drink that is popular throughout the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia. Morning sweetness comes from the most amazing fresh dates that are a perfect complement to the unsweetened hot coffee or tea. It is not uncommon to eat a half dozen or more of them at breakfast. It turns out that dates are a perfect after-dive snack, which immediately neutralized the highly salty Red Sea water that may have crept in during the water exit. 

After gathering up our dive gear, underwater cameras and collection materials, we packed up the Suburban and headed to the marina about a mile down the road to meet our dive guide, boat and captain. It was about 7 a.m. The dawn light was still gaining, and the air was tepid with a slight breeze. The water had a gentle ripple but no apparent waves or swell. It looked like a great day to collect samples on the rarely visited Red Sea coral reefs of Saudi Arabia. 

The team leaving Yanbu on Day One

After loading the boat and passing a final inspection by security officials who checked our passports, we steamed out of the marina and into open water. The Arabian Desert was visible through a haze, and the shoreline was probably 10-15 km away. This is an unforgiving place in the mid-day heat, but in a boat plowing through these waters on our way to reef #33 and #34 (each reef is numbered) we were assured of some pretty mild temperatures. Indeed, our dive computers confirmed that the water was about 82F, meaning we only needed a 3mm wet suit to be comfortable during each hour-long collection dive.

We were the only boat within view of our reefs the entire day. There were no other divers on the reef except our team, and this is clearly a rarely visited area given the spectacular condition of these underwater habitats. The best way to appreciate the working environment is to watch the video above, which also shows how we collect and also showcasing the mind-blowing scenery.

On Day One we did three dives with a maximum working depth of about 100 feet, moving to shallower conditions on each successive dive. Yiorgo and I, with the senior guide, collected about 50-100 sediment samples/dive.  Kerry McPhail and her team collected cyanobacteria, while Diaa and his team, including Prof. Vacelet, focusing on marine invertebrates, including primarily sponges and tunicates.

Day Two was punctuated by a dive on the Iona wreck, which extended our collection range to depth of about 120 feet (achieved by Yiorgo).  We were joined by the Dean of the Faculty of Pharmacy, Zainy M. Banjar, who traveled up from Jeddah the night before. With a bit of encouragement, he put on snorkeling gear and went out with one of the dive guides to survey the Iona from the surface. With visibility of >100 feet in these waters it was a wonderful experience for him to see where we had been collecting samples just a bit earlier in the day. His understanding and appreciation of our efforts to move this drug discovery collaboration forward was a direct outcome of his commitment to join us in the field that day. Many thanks to Dean Banjar for his support!On the boat off the coast of Yanbu

During these two days in Yanbu, the only disruption to our view of desert, sea and vibrant coral reefs was a pair of enormous oil refineries on the distant Arabian coast. A smoke stack of a size difficult to comprehend expelled a constant stream of white smoke, forming a plume in the otherwise blue sky. The late-afternoon winds changed the direction of the contrail and seemed to clear the air around the facility. We were happy to leave that behind as we steamed back over still and glass-like water to the marina for a late lunch, carrying hundreds of fresh samples to support our future microbial natural product drug discovery efforts. Then it was time to pack our gear and samples and head six hours south to al-Laith for two more days of collections.

Nov. 16-17 (Dive days 3-4): Al-Laith (Red Sea coast, south of Jeddah)

Al-Laith, about two hours south of Jeddah on the Red Sea coast, was our second destination. Our group had established a rhythm and coalesced nicely into a cohesive working team. We already had five dives under our belt and the familiarity and competence of the divers created a more relaxed atmosphere both underwater and on the boat. This was a remarkably multi-national group including individuals from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Greece, Zimbabwe, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the U.S. Somehow, despite the variant accents, often rudimentary English and cultural diversity we started joking and laughing almost immediately after returning to the boat after each collection dive. The early mornings and long days were being felt and most of us (except the two drivers) caught up on sleep during the six-hour road trip to Al-Laith.  We arrive quite late, about 10 p.m., moved our gear into individual rooms at the Al Ahlam and had a quick dinner before settling in for the night.

Over the next two days we conducted six collection dives, and also stopped at the small island of Abulat (an ancient and now petrified coral reef) for terrestrial sampling. The reefs included Whale Shark Reef, Middle Reef, The Wall, Canyon Reef, Brown Reef and a final dive about 2 miles south of Whale Shark Reef. The Wall dive was one of the most memorable, with fantastic water clarity, and the table reef at 30 feet and the sheer wall plummeting into the blue to an unknown bottom. We worked the wall down to about 133 feet (Yiorgo), and I limited my bottom range to about 115 feet. Traveling back, we stopped at Abulat island and had a shore lunch, cruising 1.5 hours back to base in al-Laith as the sun was setting and arriving just as darkness fell. On the nxt day we had three final collection dives and then it was time to return to Jeddah for our final two days at the university.  

Nov. 18-19: Return to KAU, Jeddah

Our final two days were focused on training Prof. Youssef’s students in marine microbial isolations. We will continue this process remotely through Skype and email to assure that novel actinomycetes are obtained and that a process is developed for resource sharing in drug discovery collaborative projects. Of course, we will welcome visits and student exchanges between both laboratories as the project moves forward and look forward to continuing these efforts in the future, as well as working to develop new knowledge of Red Sea marine microbes with the potential to discover new medicinal agents.

Departure and final thoughts

I have visited and collected samples in many parts of the world, and while this particular expedition had a similar logistical and technical framework to others, there were many unique impressions and experiences in the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia in particular. First, it was terrific to share “science heaven” with Yiorgo Skiniotis, my colleague from the Life Sciences Institute. It has always been a privilege to work directly in the field to obtain samples, generate the microbes, screen the extracts, discover new and wonderfully complex natural products, and then study the blue-print genetic information that prescribes the construction of the medicinal agents. In collaborative science today, we necessarily compartmentalize our individual efforts based on expertise and join as a complementary and multi-disciplinary team. Having Yiorgo join the very starting point of my group’s work provided an ideal juxtaposition to his research, which visualizes at high resolution the molecular machines responsible for generating many natural product molecules of pharmaceutical potential. This serves to expand our understanding and appreciation for one another’s work, expertise, interests and motivations.

This short course and expedition became a wonderful reminder of science’s ability to create an atmosphere that is positive, inclusive, agnostic and neutral among individuals with distinct cultural and religious backgrounds. How fantastic if this reality of the scientific community could become the broad norm among and between all.

We flew out of Jeddah in the middle of the night, reflecting on our trip and our many experiences. It was time to return back home, but with a feeling of promise that we would return here to dive and work in the Red Sea.

—David Sherman

David Sherman is also the Hans W. Vahlteich Professor of Medicinal Chemistry and associate dean for research and graduate education in the College of Pharmacy; Georgios Skiniotis is Jack E. Dixon professor at the LSI and an associate professor of biological chemistry.

View more photos from the expedition on the LSI's Facebook page.