Scientists believe they can make cancer drugs from the humble sea squirt.
The sea squirt Lissoclinum patella
A microbe that lives within this sea animal produces compounds that may fight some tumours.
Using laboratory techniques they say it should be possible to produce enough of the compounds without having to destroy a large number of sea squirts.
The University of Utah work, funded by the National Science Foundation, is described in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Professor Marcel Jaspers, at the University of Aberdeen, along with colleagues from the Australian Institute of Marine Science, have made similar discoveries by looking at the sea squirt.
The Utah researchers discovered that Prochloron microbes, which live inside the sea squirt Lissoclinum patella, produce two compounds called patellamide A and C, which are thought to have anti-cancer properties.
Next, they pinpointed the gene pathways that the microbes used to make these compounds.
Researcher Dr Eric Schmidt said: "Coral reefs and other ocean environments are like rainforests - full of natural chemicals to potentially treat human disease.
"Unfortunately, it's difficult to supply pharmaceuticals from these delicate environments. We have solved this by finding specific genes for the synthesis of chemicals using laboratory bacteria."
Their Prochloron genome project - in collaboration with Margo Haygood at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego - is still under way.
Dr Matthew Fletcher, lecturer in Organic Chemistry at the University of Wales Bangor, UK, and member of the Society of Chemical Industry, said: "This is a step forward towards simpler, sustainable methods - using a combination of chemical and microbiological techniques - for the production of "drugs from the deep" that avoid the harvesting and destruction of unsustainably large quantities of marine organisms.
"The marine environment is a realm of biological and chemical diversity, and the marine organisms that live in it are a rich source of intriguing and unusual molecules with the potential to become powerful drugs.
"However, these molecules are usually present in minute quantities in rare organisms.
"So instead of diving for these 'pearls' of great price - ravaging the marine environment - we need to develop sustainable methods for the production of drugs."