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Caving For Cures
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Caving For Cures

What a strange place to look for a cure to cancer!

Topic

Underground search for new drugs

Student Exploration

You're Going Down There?

People are fairly familiar with abundant resources leading to abundant life. But have you ever thought about places where resources are not abundant, where life is a little harder, and organisms have to come up with interesting ways to survive? Well, some scientists have thought about these places because they represent life on the edge and the chance to learn more about all the possibilities of life. Caves are such places. Sunlight, the number one energy source on the planet, isn't available to cave organisms. Of course, there is always chemical energy and chemosynthesis but even that can be restricted in some caves, and yet somehow life persists. Somehow little microbial organisms show up leaving scientists to ponder the eternal question, "What the heck are they doing there?" Now, some scientists are trying to put these little organisms to work. They are seeking them out to see if any of their unique solutions to their unique environments may also be of use to humans in fighting disease.

Extension Investigation

Use the resources below to answer the following questions:

  1. Explain why caves are a unique environment to look for living organisms used to make drugs.
  2. Why do scientists feel that environments which encourage microbial competition are good places to look for drugs?
  3. What sorts of clues do researchers look for to identify potential microbial colonies in caves?
  4. What two factors determine the biological activity of a compound? How does this help explain how some drugs can mimic natural compounds?
  5. What is one basic advantage natural compounds have over wholly synthetic compounds in the search for new drugs?
  6. What are "pool fingers"? What do they teach us about microbial lives in caves?

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