January 11, 2021

Francis Sakai-Kawada

The search for natural pigments includes an MBBE study on marine sponges

Cosmetics, food supplements, pharmaceuticals, and textile dyes are just a few of today’s many uses of natural pigments.

In Puhi Bay, Hilo, researchers from the Dept. of Molecular Biosciences and Bioengineering collected a marine sponge known to harbor microorganisms that produce bioactive pigments – and sure enough, the tissue expressed a red-purple hue.

But for PhD candidate Francis Sakai-Kawada, another focus was the ecological impact of those 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.

Working with JABSOM and UH Hilo, Francis (who earned his PhD and is now a lecturer at Chaminade U.) 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, Hawai‘i,“ are published in the latest issue of Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems.

“Seaweed blooms produce antioxidants and damage sponge and coral,” he says. “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.”

He adds, “I am a Hilo boy, so I am truly excited to highlight the research being done in my hometown to the broader science community. This was a big collaborative effort and I’d like to thank UH-Manoa MBBE, UH-Hilo Biology program and Tropical Conservation and Environmental Science, and Daniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy.”


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