In the hunt for novel antibiotics, will new technology overtake underwater exploration?

LAKE SUPERIOR — Choppy, windswept waves slap at the hull as our boat nears the last known location of the Lucerne, a schooner that sank to the bottom of Lake Superior in 1886. The wreck, just off a narrow sand peninsula jutting from the northern tip of Wisconsin, doubles as a suspected habitat for an elusive freshwater sponge called Eunapius fragilis. Finding these tiny aquatic organisms is the reason a trio of young scientists have set off with a local divemaster. The hunch is these sponges could be a source for new chemical molecules, which, in turn, could be the basis for new antibiotics. Looking north under overcast skies in late August, the lake stretches all the way to the gray-blue horizon line, which appears to seesaw back and forth.

“Time for a little search-and-find,” says Brian Murphy. A chemist at the University of Illinois Chicago, he has zipped himself inside a sleek, rubberized dry suit. He stands spread-legged, packing peppered beef jerky into his cheek. (Something about suppressing his gag reflex, he explains.) Then, Murphy straps a dive knife to his calf. “We should drop in on the bow,” he tells Chase Clark, who, at the time, was a doctoral researcher in his lab and his seasoned dive buddy.

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In the hunt for novel antibiotics, will new technology overtake underwater exploration?

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