It's all off the coast of Alabama.

By Andrea Romano
April 10, 2020

A recent discovery near the Gulf of Mexico could mean some new scientific developments that could improve our daily lives.

Scientists have discovered an underwater forest of trees that dates back about 60,000 years, CNN reported. The well-preserved wood from the trees has the potential to help develop new types of medical treatments.

Ocean Genome Legacy Center Director Dan Distel, Dive Safety Officer Grant Lockridge, and researcher Francis Choi wrap a 60,000-year-old log to keep it damp for the trip back to shore. Once on in the lab, researchers dissected the wood to discover what marine species were living inside.
Courtesy of Brian Helmuth

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the prehistoric bald cypress forest, which used to grow on the banks of a river near the Gulf of Mexico, close to the coast of Alabama, became “entombed” in the peat and sediment of the river as the waters continued to rise and the trees died and fell into the water below. The trees remained buried there until very recently, protected from decay by water and sediment.

CNN reported that the sediment protected the trees from oxygen, which would otherwise cause the trees to decompose. In fact, the trees were so well preserved, they even still had bark on them. It wasn’t until Hurricane Ivan hit the Gulf Coast in 2004, sweeping up the ocean floor, that the forest was finally unearthed, CNN reported.

Wood from a 60,000-year-old bald cypress forest buried off the coast of Alabama was uncovered by storms. Newly exposed wood offers a unique habitat for marine organisms and creates a novel ecosystem in the Gulf of Mexico.
Courtesy of Francis Choi

The forest now sits about 60 feet below the surface of the water in Mobile Bay, Alabama. Since 2004, scientists have been visiting the site to learn more about the ancient forest, CNN reported. In December 2019, scientists from Northeastern University and the University of Utah, funded by the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (OER) led an expedition to take pieces of the wood back to the lab for study.

“It was a really nice day. Pretty calm on the surface and we were expecting it be equally nice on the bottom,” said Brian Helmuth, a professor of marine and environmental sciences at Northeastern University, to CNN. “But we got to the bottom and it was like diving in chocolate milk. We literally could not see our hands in front of our faces.”

Collected from an ancient cypress forest submerged in Mobile Bay, this log contains hundreds of marine organisms that either burrow into the wood or live in burrows made by other organisms.
Courtesy of Brian Helmuth
Researcher Marvin Altamia focuses on capturing detailed voucher images of organisms collected from the Alabama submerged forest. These high-quality images capture the morphology of the marine organisms and can be used for species identifications
Courtesy of Brian Helmuth

“Even though the visibility wasn't great, you could pretty easily imagine it being the edge of a cypress forest and it was almost an eerie feeling of stepping back in time,” Helmuth added.

When the wood was taken back to the lab, scientists discovered more than 300 organisms and animals living inside the wood, including shipworms, which is a type of clam that has the ability to transform wood into animal tissue, according to CNN.

The shipworms created over 100 strains of bacteria — about 12 of which are being tested for their potential to create new medical treatments, CNN reported. Previous strains of shipworm bacteria have led to antibiotics that treat parasitic infections in the past, according to NOAA.

Margo Haygood, a research professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of Utah, told CNN that the strains could potentially be used to create new anti-cancer drugs, treatments for pain, or possibly anti-virals. In addition, scientists are studying samples to see if they can be used in textile and paper production, food, chemicals, or renewable energy.

While these new developments may be many years away from being part of our daily lives, scientists seem optimistic about how they could improve society in the long run.

More information about the scientific expedition and testing can be found on the NOAA website.