One of the more frightening medical trends today is our growing resistance to antibiotics, which we take for everything from ear infections to life-threatening blood conditions. As people use antibiotics for more and more ailments, the ability of germs and bacteria to mutate and adapt has increased, often making them stronger than the medicines available to treat them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called preventing antibiotic resistance “mission critical.”

One important person in this critical mission is Pharmacognosy Professor David Rowley, who, with his students, is turning to the world’s oceans for possible new infection-fighting molecules. Pharmacognosy is the study of the medicinal properties of compounds from such natural sources as the ocean and plants. “Most of our current antibiotic drugs derive from natural products produced by terrestrial microorganisms, so as we try to stay one step ahead of the pathogens, the most logical next place to look is at marine microbes,” he said.

Professor Rowley says the marine environment provides an endless bounty of microbes that could lead to the next generation of life-saving medicines. He and his students are studying bacteria found in mud sediment from a remote region of the South Pacific. He says preliminary results are promising with microbes that are “perhaps unlike any others that have been investigated.”

Professor Rowley and his team are part of URI’s Natural Products Group, the premier natural products research group in the Northeast with the largest number of pharmacognosy researchers in the area. The Natural Products Group works on projects with a growing number of companies and with other scientists at URI and other institutions. For example, Ocean Spray Cranberries, Inc. has funded the Professor Rowley’s research on the beneficial agents found in cranberries, and the Rhode Island Sea Grant is supporting his research on the chemistry of bacteria that promote disease-resistance in oysters.