Ancient humans started venturing out of Africa 60,000 years ago, and that was when a forest of cypress trees grew on the banks of a river near the Gulf of Mexico. As the trees grew old, they slowly fell and were buried under sediment. When the sea level rose, the remains of the forest were covered again.
Ancient underwater forest
Scientists have uncovered the said forest and they believe that it may hold the secrets to making new medicines and saving lives. For millennia, the ancient forest remained hidden, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. However, in 2004, Hurricane Ivan hit the Gulf Coast, sweeping up the seabed and sediment that kept the forest entombed.
Since the hurricane, the site has been visited by a few scientists and filmmakers. The site now lies 60 feet underwater off Alabama's coast in Mobile Bay. However, it was not until December of 2019 that a team of scientists from Northeastern University and the University of Utah set out on an expedition that was funded by NOAA to dive into the waters and bring back pieces of wood to study.
A professor of marine and environmental sciences at Northeastern University, Brian Helmuth, was one of the scientists who dived in. Helmuth told CNN ,"It was a really nice day. Pretty calm on the surface and we were expecting it be equally nice on the bottom. 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."
Helmuth recalled that the conditions were less than ideal and the fact that previous dive teams saw a lot of sharks in the area made the whole expedition risky, but when the scientists reached the hidden forest, they were in awe. Helmuth said that what they saw amazed them. They dove around the edge of the ancient river bed.
Helmuth said that on their left was the remains of massive stumps and pristine wood coming out of the bank embankment. The visibility during the expedition was not great, but being at the edge of a cypress forest was gave the divers an eerie feeling of stepping back in time.
Despite the forest being 60,000 years old, it was very well-preserved because ot had been buried under layers of sediment that prevented oxygen from decomposing it.
There were 300 animals that were removed from the wood in the cypress forest, but the scientists were particularly focused on one. Shipworms are a type of clam that converts wood into animal tissue, according to NOAA. Shipworms are not new to the world of science because they are common and they can be found in most oceans wherever there is wood. However, the bacteria found from the shipworms that hand been living inside the wood that is 60,000 years old had never been discovered and studied before.
A research professor of medicinal chemistry at University of Utah stated that they were able to isolate bacteria from the shipworms and get some bacteria that they have not worked with before. Scientists are excited about the possibility of discovering something new.
The shipworms that were from the ancient wood have 100 strains of bacteria, a lot of them novel, and 12 are undergoing DNA sequencing to evaluate their potential to make new drug treatments.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic has put any future dives and projects to the forest on hold. Haygood stated that she and the team of scientists will continue to study the samples and will publish the results as soon as they are finished.
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