This was originally in the Health chapter, from my interview with Rob Capon.
Soil is just one of the areas Rob looks for potentially useful molecules, and a very different environment to where he began. Rob started out studying marine organisms, sea sponges to be specific.
‘Sample collection meant putting on a scuba tank and going for a swim,’ he grins, strawberry blonde curls bobbing. Splashing about in the ocean sounds far more delightful than digging holes in the middle of summer and was one reason I considered marine biology at university. Then I remembered I couldn’t scuba dive (I’m asthmatic) and have an unnatural fear of sharks—an event when I was about seven when the Jaws movie, a beach holiday, and a pod of dolphins culminated to instil such a fear of these magnificent creatures that even today I struggle to swim in a pool alone. Marine biology was out of the question; I would never find looking for sea sponges relaxing.
Sea sponges are an excellent place to look for interesting and useful chemicals because they are one of the oldest multicellular life forms on Earth and have had millions of years to develop defensive compounds. They are also living incubators for microbes, which are among, if not the oldest single cell life forms on Earth.
‘Both sponges and microbes can’t run away from threats. They also lack claws, fangs, shells or other defensive/offensive armaments. This means both have to defend themselves in other ways—bioactive chemicals.’
One notable exception is the family of carnivorous sea sponge, Cladorhizidae, who have quite an appetite for small crustaceans, and some sponges have spikes. But most rely on chemical defence which is why many types of sponges cause dermatitis—itching, swelling, even blisters in swimmers who go sticking their fingers where the sponges don’t want them to.
But no matter how exciting sea sponge chemistry was, to ‘do some good’ as Rob puts it, he needed to scale up. Which meant working faster, cheaper, and more widely. With the skills and infrastructure he had at the time, scaling up to get more compounds for research meant harvesting more sponges. This was fun, but environmentally and financially problematic. It’s easier, faster and cheaper to culture microbes in a lab.
‘This put something of a brake on the development of sponge chemistry discoveries. So we invested in the skills and infrastructure to work with microbes. Initially by teaming up with another company that did all the microbiology for us, and later by becoming experts at doing it ourselves. It took time, but we are now a leading microbial biodiscovery lab on the world stage.’
Rob and team have since hunted for molecules in the microbial world to repurpose for the greater good, whether human health, animal health, or better farming. Fish guts, cone snails, scorpions and snake skins and of course the soil are just some of the wonders he has isolated microbes from.