In 1974, when organic chemist Phillip O. Crews browsed through a book on marine biology that stated the chemistry of sponges was unknown he refocused the direction of his research and his career to solving this mystery. He was born in the university town of Urbana, Illinois on August 15, 1943. Earning his undergraduate degree at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1966, he was later granted the doctorate at the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1969. Crews has taught chemistry at the University of California, Santa Cruz since 1970 and was a National Science Foundation fellow at Princeton University from 1969 to 1970.
Crews has made nearly 40 expeditions to islands in the Pacific Ocean and has isolated more than 800 pure compounds and thousands of sponge extracts, work he hopes will lead to more potent anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory drugs. His discovery of bengamides isolated from Japis sponges found in waters off the Fiji Islands may hold great promise. In order to explore the coral reefs Crews learned to scuba dive and mastered sailing. He has worked with pharmaceutical firms like Syntex and Novartis, the Henry Ford Cancer Center, and has received research grants from the National Institutes of Health to further his work which he realizes must increasingly entail more attention to deep water sponges and their symbiotic relation with microorganisms.