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Francis Sakai-Kawada

Cosmetics, food supplements, pharmaceuticals and textile dyes are just a few of the many uses of natural pigments. In a search for natural pigments, researchers from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources Department of Molecular Biosciences and Bioengineering (MBBE) collected a marine sponge from Puhi Bay in Hilo known to harbor microorganisms that produce bioactive pigments—and sure enough, the tissue expressed a red-purple hue.

But for Francis Sakai-Kawada, a PhD candidate at the time of the study, 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.

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Working with the UH Mānoa John A. Burns School of Medicine and UH Hilo, Sakai-Kawada 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, Hawaiʻi,” were published in the latest issue of Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems.

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

Sakai-Kawada added, “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 Mānoa’s MBBE, UH Hilo’s Biology program and Tropical Conservation and Environmental Science, and the Daniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy.”

This work is an example of UH Mānoa’s goal of Excellence in Research: Advancing the Research and Creative Work Enterprise (PDF), one of four goals identified in the 2015–25 Strategic Plan (PDF), updated in December 2020.

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