Date: Jan. 20, 1999
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Better Information on Ocean Life Needed
To Improve Human Health
The world's oceans harbor diverse organisms that show great promise for providing new drugs to combat cancer and fight infectious diseases. Toxins produced by cone snails for paralyzing prey are being studied as a treatment for epilepsy, and some chemical compounds in marine fungi exhibit antiviral mechanisms that may help fight herpes and HIV. Moreover, the unique structures of sea creatures such as squids, sharks, and sea urchins make them ideal models for studying disease and cellular processes. But because marine habitats often are difficult to access and obscure marine microorganisms are hard to culture and classify, the full range of health benefits that marine biodiversity could provide has not been explored.
The oceans also are becoming conduits for an increasing number of threats to public health. Runoff from sewage systems, rivers, and streams transfer viruses and bacteria to shellfish. Harmful microorganisms make their way into ships' ballast waters and spread diseases from one region of the world to another. And damaging blooms of microscopic algae, or "red tides," are sweeping through coastal areas, contaminating seafood with toxins that can cause intestinal and neurological disorders in humans.
To guard against such health threats and take advantage of the medicinal benefits that oceans might provide, more information needs to be collected and coordinated among many different scientific fields, says From Monsoons to Microbes: Understanding the Ocean's Role in Human Health, a new report by a committee of the National Research Council. The committee identified several areas for study, including:
> Gathering data to predict and prevent marine-related public health disasters. In addition to the health disasters brought about by El Niño, devastating hurricanes, and other weather and climate phenomena linked to the oceans, many public health officials are concerned that higher water temperatures brought about by global warming might lead to a rise in malaria and dengue fever as populations of mosquitoes and other disease-carrying organisms increase. Ocean-related data on temperature, tropical storms, rainfall, and droughts should be examined regularly and compared with comprehensive health statistics on the location, frequency, and dates of disease outbreaks, to identify connections between illnesses and environmental factors.
> Studying marine organisms for sources of new drugs. Although terrestrial plants, animals, and microbes are a source for more than half of the medicinal drugs on the market today, technical difficulties and a lack of knowledge on the marine environment have prevented scientists and researchers from exploring marine life fully. Industry and academia should work together to investigate marine species and identify potential new drugs. Moreover, research should include not only testing for effectiveness in fighting cancer, but also for treating other infectious diseases and chronic disorders such as hypertension.
> Combating the spread of harmful algae. The environmental conditions that foster large blooms of microscopic algae are not well understood and seem to vary from species to species. Research is needed to identify damaging types of algae and the physical, chemical, and biological factors that promote their growth.
> Using new technologies to help reduce human health risks. Advanced sensors should be put in place to monitor marine conditions and water quality. More sensitive and specific tests are needed to detect pathogens introduced into oceans through runoff from sewage, rivers, and streams. In addition, accurate, cost-effective methods should be developed for identifying toxins in seafood, especially the difficult-to-detect toxins from algae.
The study was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and NASA. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, non-profit institution that provides independent advice on science and technology issues under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.
Read the full text of From Monsoons to Microbes: Understanding the Ocean's Role in Human Health for free on the Web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web site or at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).
NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Commission on Geosciences, Environment, and Resources
Ocean Studies Board
Committee on the Ocean's Role in Human Health
William Fenical (chair)
Professor of Oceanography, and
Director, Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine
Scripps Institution of Oceanography
University of California
Marine and Freshwater Biomedical Center
University of Miami
Laboratory of Kidney and Electrolyte Metabolism
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
National Institutes of Health
Claude de Ville de Goyet
Chief, Emergency Preparedness
Pan American Health Organization
Darrell Jay Grimes
Director and Professor
Institute of Marine Sciences
University of Southern Mississippi
Vice President for Research
March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation, and
Carpentier Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics
White Plains, N.Y.
Nancy H. Marcus
Florida State University Marine Laboratory
Division of Biomedical Marine Research
Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution Inc.
Fort Pierce, Fla.
School of Oceanography
University of Washington
Research Fishery Biologist
National Marine Fisheries Service
Department of Social and Preventive Medicine
School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences
University at Buffalo
State University of New York
RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF
(1) Member, National Academy of Sciences
(2) Member, Institute of Medicine