The future of medicine may very well lie within the body of the tiny Hawaiian bobtail squid. An exciting discovery has revealed that a toxic molecule found in both humans and in the Hawaiian bobtail squid holds the medical key for critical organ development and the immune system. Funded by the National Institute of Health, the study was reported in the November 12, 2004 issue of the journal Science. The main researcher of this fascinating area of medicine is Margaret McFall-Ngai, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of medical microbiology and corresponding author of the Science article.
The toxic molecule that causes tissue damage in the disease process of whooping cough and gonorrhea in humans is found to generate the light producing organ in the Hawaiian bobtail squid. The light producing organ is found on the surface of their body. This organ acts to camouflage the squid against hungry predators. This makes the toxic molecule, tracheal cytotoxin, crucial for the survival of the Hawaiian bobtail squid. Approximately two millimeters in length when born, the squid collects the bacteria that produce the toxin from their ocean home. On their premature light organ, they have special features that promote the bacterial growth. The bacteria then promote a strong development of the light organ in return. Without the toxic bacteria their light organ does not develop.
The same toxic molecule, tracheal cytotoxin, is produced by different bacteria in different animals. Now the molecule is being looked at from two ways—disease and massive tissue damage and organ development. According to McFall-Ngai, this forces biologists to look differently at the relationship between microorganisms and their plant and or animal hosts. Until now this essential role in medical development has not been recognized.
The relationship of these bacteria and the positive cellular production is noted by McFall-Ngai, "animals could develop a set of body plans that repel bacteria or associate with them." In humans there are thousands of bacteria that are either neutral or helpful in such instances as the immune system, digestion and the keeping of specific vitamins. Many live in the stomach and promote a healthy environment in the colon to prevent disease. This is critical for the development and preservation of the immune system, especially when the bacteria work alongside with other human systems.
The 100 or less species of bacteria antibiotics that have been created for human consumption creates questions for the use or abuse of these medicines. In the past few years overuse of antibiotics has led to illnesses that are not responsive to treatment by the common antibiotics. In essence—Super Bugs! All too often beneficial bacteria are killed off when some antibiotics are used. Now it is necessary to look at bacteria differently. Looking at the molecular communication between bacteria and their host organisms determines the type of relationship they will have. This is something similar to human relationships—positive, neutral or harmful. The type of communication depends on the host, which then determines the biological outcome of the two organisms coming together. With this information scientists can start to investigate an animal’s eventual compatibility or incompatibility with the toxic molecule.
"We don't understand if beneficial associations or pathogenic associations result from the same language. The surprise of this study is that the molecules used to signal the development of the organ in the squid are the same that signal for pathogenesis in the case of whooping cough or gonorrhea," McFall-Ngai says.
Researchers are given encouragement to focus on these same bacteria through new genetic sequencing technology. This allows biologists to begin to identify the many varieties of bacteria that live in association with humans and animals.
One may now ponder the following questions: Do trace elements in our waters of medications such as antibiotics harm marine life, animals and humans? As leeches are used to consume dead tissue will the Hawaiian bobtail squid and the tracheal cytotoxin molecule be used to regenerate it? Will they be used for the improvement of the immune system? What more host and toxic molecule information can we learn ?