Magazine article Foreign Policy

The Bioprospector: Russell Kerr

Magazine article Foreign Policy

The Bioprospector: Russell Kerr

Article excerpt

WHILE DIVING IN THE BAHAMAS a few years ago, Russell Kerr turned his head and noticed more than his green mesh equipment bag floating beside him--there was also a 5-foot-long reef shark. "It was quite startling," he says, "but you can't spend the whole time looking over your shoulder."

Spending days alongside sharks is just an unavoidable part of the gig, says Kerr, a Canadian biochemist and bioprospector who scours nature for molecules with healing properties and powers. Kerr focuses almost exclusively on marine life; bioprospecting on land, he notes, is old hat, while oceans still remain largely untapped.

In 2007, a year into his professorship at the University of Prince Edward Island, Kerr co-founded Nautilus Biosciences Canada to capitalize on his academic work's commercial potential and further develop the compounds that he and his university team have uncovered in the field. Projects have included coral-dwelling fungi that could be used to alleviate pain, a marine microbe that attacks cancer cells, and a bacterium that produces a molecule with moisturizing properties.

None have reached market yet, but such is the lot of a bioprospector. Perhaps one in every several thousand compounds analyzed will prove useful. Yet the potential is great--more than half of all therapeutic drugs and some three-quarters of all antibiotics have origins in bacteria. So Kerr casts a wide net, cultivating hundreds of species of microbes from each bit of sea sponge, sediment, and coral his team hauls above the surface. In an hour underwater, they can collect enough samples to stay busy in the lab for weeks. They've explored areas off Turkey, Colombia, and the Arctic coast of Canada's Nunavut territory, and Kerr travels annually to the Bahamas, home to vast biodiversity in its shallow reefs, mangrove forests, and hypersaline lakes. "We used to bring along the movie Jaws," he recalls. "But some of the students with little experience on the water didn't share our sense of humor."

In a recent conversation with FOREIGN POLICY, Kerr revealed the tools of his life aquatic.

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Beer and granola bars

Our ships are dry, so we drink Red Stripe--sometimes the only beer we can find--when we return to port.

I also bring a snack since, in the past, we've had lunches consisting of white bread and something resembling baloney.

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Cameras

The big camera is a $5,000 Canon and is used when we can devote one diver to just taking photographs. …

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