Aquaria are an unusual art form. The idea of containing a small piece of the untamed world within the strictures of our lives appeals to us, as well as reconstructing with minute attention that which the forces of nature create through wild abandon. We take great care to obtain and nurture pieces of an ecosystem, selecting and placing with much forethought and planning corals and algae and fish and invertebrates. A popular selection are specimens of the soft coral genus Sarcophyton, which tend to be fairly hardy and non-aggressive, and go by such flattering names as toadstool, mushroom, leather, and umbrella corals. However, one aquaria website cautions “Toadstool Leather may secrete chemical toxins which may be harmful for some corals in the vicinity of the Sarcophyton species” (http://www.freshmarine.com/toadstool-leather.html). While a potential complication for the hobby aquarist, this is an excellent sign for the chemically minded marine biologist. And indeed, many interesting secondary metabolites have been isolated from various Sarcophyton species, including a number with a range of useful medical properties—anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, anti-arthritic, antimicrobial. A good number of these properties come from the coral’s need to control the biofilm on its surface, although some are designed to fend off fishy predators, and some are utilized for chemical warfare with sedentary neighbors. Water is a rather good medium for such chemical technologies, and ocean water in particular is swimming with microbes, provoking the evolution of such a range of compounds that the mind can hardly comprehend. The human species, on the other hand has found that many of these compounds, if applied correctly, can be useful in many different ways than their creators had intended. The same principles that keep microbes from accumulating and forming biofilms can often be used to slow the growth of tumors, or even selectively kill cancerous cells while leaving healthy cells untouched. So who knows? Perhaps the cure for cancer is sitting docilely in the aquarium in your doctor’s office.
-by Nyssah Walker
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