Special Forces around Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, have long use the unforgiving mangrove forest to train the region’s toughest military units.

The Malaysian Special Forces requires all candidates to undergo two weeks of survival training in the mangroves during the selection process.

The challenge is how to live in the mangrove without any basic supplies while having to endure the muddy, brackish and humid condition there.

Compared to the soldiers, all the flora and fauna of the mangrove forest have had to adapt themselves to the harsh ecosystem for millions of years.

So much so that the flora and fauna had evolved many special features such as aerial roots (pneumatophore), salt filtering leaves and seeds that germinate before falling off the parent tree.

With so many adaptations and special abilities to survive the harsh conditions, the mangrove forest inhabitants are indeed like nature’s very own Special Forces.

Recognizing the potentials of the mangrove inhabitants, IMB researcher Dr Ibrahim Mohamed Suliman Eldeen has embarked on a research project to put them to good use.

“I come from Sudan, a country with semi-arid climate and few pocket of mangrove plantation along the coast of the Red Sea. But with my background in forestry and biotechnology, I feel very passionate about higher plants with strong commitment to explore these amazing natural factories of molecules. This become true after joining IMB and being introduced to this unique ecosystem, I view the mangrove as an exciting store of chemical compounds, just waiting to be discovered,” he said.

He said mangrove plants are very special due to their growth circumstances.

“They have to deal with being inundated all the times, not just seasonal floodings. Compared to normal plants, they have to be creative to survive,” he said.

Although the research has just started, Dr Ibrahim and his team have chalked up a few firsts, not just in context of Malaysian mangrove research but also globally.

“In collaboration with our partners in Berlin, we are studying anti-rheumatoid arthritis properties of mangrove metabolites using a number of in vitro models including the 3D pannus model. This model was developed by a group of researcher in Charité – University Medicine Berlin. As far as I know, the application of the 3D pannus model to test metabolites from mangrove plants is unprecedented” he said.

Dr Ibrahim said arthritis is caused by synovial fibroblasts gone wild, making them attack the local articular structure causing erosion of bone and cartilage instead of producing synovial fluid to lubricate the joints.

“It is an auto-immune response, if we can suppress the synovial fibroblasts that cause arthritis, then we can contribute to the eradication of the disease,” he said.

“This is why we are using the 3D model to test mangrove metabolites against arthritis,” he said.

The complexity of the mangrove plants made Dr Ibrahim go deeper into them, and literally too.

“We are also looking at microorganisms living in the mangrove plants. They are called endophytes” he said.

“Endophytes exist in almost all living plants. But because of the mangrove ecosystem’s extreme conditions, they have to produce some ultra-amazing products to survive” he said.

He and his team have managed to isolate bacterial and fungal endophytes.

“Since there are so many of them living in the same plant, they have to interact and this usually means excreting anti-microbial agents against one another,”

In the un seen world inside the mangrove plants where the endophytes live, Dr Ibrahim has struck another first.

“We found new bacteria which have never been reported in the mangrove environment. The bacteria have been found elsewhere before but we are the first to isolate it from mangrove environment,” he said.

In the endophyte research, Dr Ibrahim drew his inspiration from the discovery of the anti-cancer drug Taxol.

“Taxol is made from the products of a fungal endophyte living in the Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia),”

“The selection pressures on endophytes living within mangrove plants are much more severe, leading to novel pathways and unique products, so there is more potential to discover drugs like Taxol,” he said.

Although they have yet to find amazing drugs like Taxol, Dr Ibrahim and his team already have potential products to be developed from their work on the endophytes.

“The anti-microbial agents can be developed into food preservatives and some of the endophytes could be friendly microbes (probiotics) to enhance our bodily functions,” he said.

Imagine having millions of mangrove-born microbial soldiers as an army in our digestive system to fight harmful bacteria.

That is surely one good way to recruit the Special Forces of the mangroves.