Natural pigments found in marine sponge from Puhi Bay, Hilo

The research team identified and sequenced the microbe’s genome and also investigated the ecological impact of its pigments. 

Francis Sakai Kawada
Francis Sakai Kawada

A doctoral student from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa collaborated with researchers from UH Hilo and several other universities to discover natural pigments in a marine sponge from Puhi Bay in Hilo. The organism is known to harbor microorganisms that produce bioactive pigments—and sure enough, the research team discovered the tissue expressed a red-purple hue. Natural pigments have commercial use in cosmetics, food supplements, pharmaceuticals and textile dyes.

Francis Sakai-Kawada, a “Hilo boy” based at the Department of Molecular Biosciences and Bioengineering  at the UH Mānoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, identified the microbe, sequenced its genome, and conducted antibacterial and antioxidant bioassays. His results, “Characterization of Prodiginine Pathway in Marine Sponge-Associated Pseudoalteromonas sp. PPB1 in Hilo, Hawaiʻi,” are published in the latest issue of Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems.

Sakai-Kawada says he is excited to highlight the research being done in his hometown to the broader science community.

A doctoral candidate at the time of the study, Sakai-Kawada worked on the project with researchers from UH Hilo; UH Mānoa; Chaminade University of Honolulu; the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Charleston, South Carolina; and Stanford University.

Jonathan Awaya
Jonathan Awaya

Research team members from UH Hilo included environmental microbiologist Hoang-Yen Nguyen formerly from the tropical conservation biology and environmental science graduate program, and Jonathan Awaya who currently serves as professor and chair of the Department of Biology.

The team also researched the ecological impact of the pigments, and the microorganisms’ role for its sponge host and marine microbial community. Both play important roles in the coral reef ecosystem by providing shelter for small marine animals and the cycling of nutrients.

“Seaweed blooms produce antioxidants and damage sponge and coral,” says Sakai-Kawada. “If these microorganisms protect the sponge and native marine animals that house in them, they control the growth and overall spread of blooms, mitigating those harmful effects and benefiting the ecosystem.”


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