Finding Hope Under the Dock


By Nancy H. Pitts

Did you know that some marine invertebrates, aka sea creatures, can be valuable sources for chemicals that can lead to the development of drugs, nutritional supplements and other uses that help extend a healthy life? Meet Bugula neritina, a pretty, feathery, brown seaweed-like little bryozoan that gives us the Bryostatin 1 molecule.

Bryozoa are not seaweed. They’re tiny filter-feeding critters, each about a millimeter long. They clump together in a branch-like way until the colony is about 15 centimeters in size. To the dismay of mariners, they’re busy worldwide, encrusting the surfaces of docks and boats.

14 Tons? To Make How Much?

This curious little sea creature may also hold a key to curing disease in its feathery appendages. Bryostatin 1 contains an enzyme that helps regulate cell growth and control immune response; both of these responses get out of control in Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and other neurodegenerative illnesses. However, 14 tons of Bugula neritina are required to create 18 grams of Bryostatin 1, meaning 706,000 grams of B. neritina yield one gram of usable material. 

Since 2011, instead of that giant harvest from the sea, laboratory chemists have been using chemical reactions to synthesize the big, floppy Bryostatin 1 molecule in two parts, which are then linked together. In the process, there is a lot of atom shuffling until voilà: Bryostatin 1. 

The original process required more than 70 steps and a little material was lost during each of the steps. Now there is a new recipe that cuts the number of steps down to 29, and it’s a far more efficient way to produce a molecule identical to Bryostatin 1. So far they have created 2 grams of Bryostatin 1 without using 1.5 tons of Bugula neritina to do so. Not only is that very efficient, it’s very impressive that a key research ingredient can be created in the lab.

The effectiveness of Bryostatin 1 is under active analysis. In May 2017, a small research study showed that the enzyme is effective for reconnection of neurons in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients who are severely disabled. Other studies have been less successful. Nevertheless, scientists are hoping the little bryozoan will help them achieve their long-term goals in this area of research.

Discussion Questions

  • What is a creature, and is an invertebrate a creature?
  • What other invertebrates are used in medicine?
  • What do bryozoa eat?
  • What are neuron synapses?


  • Invertebrate
  • Bryozoa
  • Appendage
  • Neurodegenerative