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Device sniffs out unknown ocean molecules that can be used for drug discovery

A study published by the American Chemical Society unveils a device that can “smell” seawater to detect and discover novel molecules. The research project has significant implications for marine science and pharmaceutical research.

The ocean, a vast and largely unexplored frontier, is filled with marine organisms that release an abundance of invisible molecules. These molecules carry critical information that signifies the presence of specific creatures and holds potential as future medications. 

The complexity of seawater 

“What lies in a drop of seawater? To the analytical chemist or marine ecologist, the answer is an ocean of molecules of diverse structures and origins, all diluted in trace quantities,” said the researchers.

“In 1965, Wangersky wrote, ‘Seawater is a medium of a complexity sufficient to dismay any right-thinking analytical chemist.'”

“Nevertheless, ocean scientists have tirelessly tried to unravel its complex nature, measuring how it has changed and interacted with the biosphere since the first life forms appeared on Earth.”


In an exciting development, the scientists have created a device that essentially sniffs out molecules that are dissolved in seawater and traps them for in-depth analysis.

This innovative device, named the I-SMEL (In Situ Marine moleculE Logger), is a game-changer in the study of underwater ecosystems. 

“The present work aims at evaluating the ability of a hand-held underwater SPE instrument to rapidly capture molecules within chemical seascapes and enrich specialized exometabolites released by keystone marine species in their ecosystems,” wrote the study authors.

Capturing dissolved compounds 

Developed by Thierry Pérez, Charlotte Simmler, and their team, the device aims to capture and enrich dissolved compounds produced by marine organisms like sponges, without causing harm to their sources or ecosystems.

I-SMEL is designed for easy handling by divers. It functions by pumping seawater through disks, reminiscent of makeup remover pads, which adsorb dissolved molecules for later analysis. 

Successful trials

The effectiveness of the device was demonstrated in 65-foot-deep Mediterranean Sea caves that are home to diverse sponge species. 

After collecting water samples, the team used mass spectrometry to assess the captured compounds, discovering a range of unknown molecular structures that show promise in natural product discovery.

Fascinating results 

The team’s research yielded fascinating results. Several metabolites, including brominated alkaloids and furanoterpenoids, were identified in three sponge species. 

In some cases, the system concentrated compounds released by sponges. For example, aeroplysinin-1 was approximately 20 times more abundant in the extracts from seawater than within a yellow cave-sponge extract. 

Non-invasive marine exploration

According to the researchers, I-SMEL represents a non-invasive method to capture molecules crucial for understanding ecosystem health and identifying novel molecules for drug discovery. 

This innovative device marks a significant step forward in marine biology and pharmacology. By enabling the detection and analysis of previously inaccessible underwater molecular compositions, I-SMEL opens new avenues for ecological research and the discovery of compounds that could revolutionize the field of medicine.

Next, the researchers will explore the device’s potential for autonomous operation and remote operation in deeper waters is the next milestone the researchers aim to achieve.

The study is published in the journal in ACS Central Science.

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