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Mysteries of the deep

Our oceans make up two-thirds of the planet we live on, but how much do we really know about them and their inhabitants, and what secrets and potential benefits do some of our newly discovered sea creatures have? In Episode 5 of Ever Wondered? Series 2, Dr John Watt tries to get to the bottom of some of the mysteries of the deep that are yet to be solved in our very own New Zealand waters.

Biodiversity of New Zealand’s waters

At NIWA (National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research), John meets Dr Dennis Gordon and discusses with him the biodiversity in New Zealand’s waters. Dennis tells John that, while we have about 17 000 known species, there are still tens of thousands more species to be discovered and named. John finds out that NIWA has between 300 000–500 000 samples in their marine invertebrate collection. He takes a look around this vast and slightly wacky collection. He examines a bubble gum coral that can grow up to 7 metres and live for up to 500 years and also looks at a giant marine worm from the Ross Sea.

Next, John meets Dr Ashley Rowden, NIWA, who literally goes to extreme depths to find new ocean life. Ashley studies the sea creatures that thrive in the extreme heat and toxic subvolcanic terrain of some of our deepest oceans. His team samples sea life from depths deeper than 200 metres and down to 10 kilometres. Ashley estimates that they have discovered thousands of new species. Some of these have been classified and named. The vast majority, however, remain unclassified, as there’s not enough time or manpower to do this.

Watch Episode 5, Part 1

Classifying and identifying sea sponges

When Ashley wants a newly discovered sponge classified, he takes it to Dr Michelle Kelly, NIWA, Wellington. Michelle is known as ‘the sponge lady’, as she classifies and identifies sea sponges.

John finds Michelle in her lab and gets acquainted with her incredible collection of sponges. Some look like glass flowers, while others look like strange rock formations. He learns about the work Michelle does as a taxonomist and gets a basic introduction to the properties of sea sponges. He finds out that they are animals, not plants, and that their odd appearances aren’t the only surprising thing about these sponges. It appears that not all sponges are herbivores as was initially thought. Michelle has recently identified a carnivorous sea sponge found in New Zealand waters. John also learns that some sea sponges contain chemicals or toxins that have potential medical applications.

Watch Episode 5, Part 2

Yellow Slimy produces anticancer drug

‘Yellow Slimy’ is the affectionate name for a sea sponge discovered by Emeritus Professors Murray Munro and John Blunt in 1982. While working at the University of Canterbury in natural product chemistry, they discovered that this sea sponge produced a chemical with unusually powerful biological activity against cancer cells.

John catches up with these two retired professors and discusses with them their almost 30-year journey. This journey began with the discovery of this new sea sponge with unusual biological activity, which led to the synthesis of the chemical compound (halichondrin B) and identification of its active part to FDA approval and the release of an anticancer drug (eribulin) in 2010. John helps our understanding of this process by explaining how synthetic drug compounds are made, and the professors explain that they gave this compound over to others to investigate and establish its viability as a potential drug candidate.

John summarises the episode by concluding that it can be a long journey from discovering a new organism, through figuring out what it is and then uncovering any interesting properties and potentially developing them.

Watch Episode 5, Part 3

Activity idea

In conjunction with this episode of Ever Wondered?, your students may enjoy these activities.

Read more about the carnivorous sea sponge that Dr Michelle Kelly discovered.
Carnivorous sea sponge singled out

Watch this video showing how marine samples are taken from the seafloor.
Barnacles and sponges from the seafloor

Do an activity to find out how much life there is in a litre of sea water.
How much life is in a litre of sea water

Imagine what it might be like to go on a research voyage, like Dr Ashley Rowan does.
A day in the life of a scientist

Act in this role-play where students take on the role of a stakeholder in New Zealand fisheries. In their role, they decide whether they agree or disagree with the statement: ‘There are plenty of fish in the sea’.
Fisheries role play

Context links

To further investigate our unique marine environment, check out this Science Learning Hub context and science story.  

Life in the Sea: New Zealand scientists use a range of methods to learn about life in the sea around us. How do our marine organisms interact, and how do we affect them?
Life in the Sea

Research Voyage to Antarctica: From February until mid-March 2008, New Zealand scientists embarked on an 8-week voyage to the Ross Sea to survey the marine environment and explore the variety of life forms (biodiversity) in the region. This science story records their progress from week to week and includes a large range of video clips.
Research Voyage to Antarctica

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