Issue Date: January 2, 2006
Ernest Guenther Award in the Chemistry of Natural Products
Sponsored by Givaudan
It was serendipitous that William Fenical ended up as an assistant professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. "It was a big risk in 1973," he says. "It was a job in an oceanographic institute, and I wasn't an oceanographer. A creative man named John Isaacs [then-director of the marine life research group at Scripps] saw that I could open something new, and I never looked back." In a career spanning more than 30 years and 25 major expeditions around the world, Fenical has established himself as a leading figure in the chemistry of marine natural products.
Fenical, 64, has long recognized the untapped potential of the world's oceans for biomedical applications. "Since the discovery of penicillin, terrestrial actinomycetes have been a major source of drug-producing microbes, which resulted in antibiotics like streptomycin and actinomycin," he says. "But as new discoveries from those sources declined, we started to look at the ocean, which has very diverse ecosystems with anywhere from 300,000 to 400,000 species of plants and animals. Oceans not only cover more than 70% of Earth's surface, but more than 90% of the organisms in the ocean are not found on land."
Fenical considers the discovery of actinomycetes in the deep ocean mud to be his most important discovery to date. These are exclusively marine-adapted and genetically unique; therefore, they are becoming an important drug resource. The biomedical potential of the oceans is enormous, he says. "In one cubic centimeter of bottom sediment, there are 1 billion microbial organisms. There is a huge diversity of microscopic organisms that are chemically distinct," Fenical explains. "These are potent, biologically active metabolites of unique, unprecedented structures."
One genus of marine actinomycetes, Salinispora, produces numerous anticancer metabolites. One member of this group, salinosporamide A, has been shown to inhibit cancer growth by a novel mechanism. This indicates the potential for similar discoveries from this genus.
As part of his research, Fenical developed new methods and tools to obtain ocean sediments, as well as new methods for sifting through the samples, culturing the microorganisms, identifying them, and screening them for their anticancer and antibiotic properties.
Fenical received his B.S. degree in biochemistry from California State Polytechnic University in 1963. "I intended to major in biology but changed to chemistry in college when I realized the dramatic precision of chemistry," he says. Fenical's interest in organic chemistry led to a Ph.D. in synthetic and structural organic chemistry at the University of California, Riverside, in 1968. His interest in biology was rediscovered when he realized he could use the principles of chemistry to study biology.
Fenical became a professor of oceanography in 1983, director of marine research in 1989, and since 1996, director of the Scripps Center for Marine Biotechnology & Biomedicine. He is a member of the editorial boards of a number of journals, including the Journal of Natural Products, the Journal of Antibiotics, and the Journal of Chemical Ecology.
Fenical has received numerous honors and awards, including the Paul Scheuer Award in Marine Natural Products Chemistry in 1996, which is given at the Marine Natural Products Gordon Conference, and the Silver Medal Award in Chemical Ecology in 1997, awarded by the International Society of Chemical Ecology. It was recently announced that he will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Pharmacognosy in 2006.
The award address will be presented before the Division of Organic Chemistry.—Corinne Marasco
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