Diving for Cures

  • Researchers are hoping to find cures underwater in corals and sponges. (Photo courtesy of NOAA)

Making medicine from things
found in nature isn’t a new
idea. Think, aspirin – which
originally came from the bark
of willow trees. Now drugs
derived from ocean animals are
slowly making their way onto
shelves. Samara Freemark talks to a researcher
who helps get them there:

Transcript

Making medicine from things
found in nature isn’t a new
idea. Think, aspirin – which
originally came from the bark
of willow trees. Now drugs
derived from ocean animals are
slowly making their way onto
shelves. Samara Freemark talks to a researcher
who helps get them there:

Mark Slattery is trying to find a cure for cancer. Slattery is a pharmacology professor at the University of Mississippi. But he doesn’t really spend much time in the lab. Instead, he’s usually in a wetsuit, scuba diving off the coasts of places like Guam and Antarctica.

He’s taking samples from tens of thousands of corals and sponges. He’s looking for that one special species that might make a chemical that could cure disease. He calls it, ‘diving for cures.’

“In many ways, it’s like going out and playing your super lotto or whatever. You pick your eight numbers and you see if you hit or not.”

The idea is pretty simple. A third of the medicines on shelves today were derived from plants and animals that live on land. So ocean researchers got to thinking that the organisms they studied probably also produced a lot of useful chemicals.

Take corals and sponges. They can’t run away from predators, so instead they squirt out chemicals that poison the fish that try to take a bite out of them. Marc Slattery says those toxins are bad for the fish – but they could be good for people.

“Those particular compounds that tell a fish “not today” are the same ones that might tell the AIDS virus “you can’t replicate” or tell a cancer cell “you’re dead” or those kinds of things.”

So Slattery and other researchers like him clip off bits of sponges and corals. When they get back to the lab they extract the chemicals, which is a nice way of saying…

“Stick it in a blender with methanol and ethyl acetate and hexanes and all those sorts of things you used in organic chemistry lab, and you throw away the dead sponge, and the tarry residue that’s left is sort of the biochemistry that came out of that sponge.”

“So you make a sponge smoothie?”

“Exactly.”

Once they’ve extracted the chemicals, researchers test to see if they have any human application. If a compound looks promising, it moves on to clinical trials. Those trials can take decades, which is why ocean-derived drugs are only now starting to hit the market. So far only two have been approved for use in the United States: a painkiller, and a cancer drug marketed by Johnson and Johnson.

I wondered how ocean conservationists felt about diving for cures. So I called up Sandra Brooke. She studies corals at the Marine Conservation Biology Institute. Brooke says she does worry that diving for cures could lead to over-harvesting.

“Once something becomes valuable to people, there’s a resistance to closing access to it. It becomes harder to regulate it.”

But she says corals are under much greater and much more immediate threats. The biggest culprit is industrial trawling. That’s when fisherman scrape reefs off the ocean floor so they can get to the fish.

“It’s just like the clear cutting of the forest, but on a much vaster scale. They are deliberately mowing down these deepwater coral ecosystems that are thousands and thousands of years old – some of the oldest animals ever measured. And that’s not going to come back – not in our lifetimes, not in many lifetimes.”

There’s also the fact that oceans are changing as the climate does. Those changes mean corals are becoming weaker. Marc Slattery thinks he might be seeing that in a Pacific reef he’s been studying for fifteen years.

“When we went back and started looking at it, we noticed that there was a change in the chemistry through time. As things have heated up on the reefs, there’s a physiological effect that has cascaded down into their ability to produce the chemistry we’re used to seeing. Early on it was so apparent, it was always there, and now they seem to be able to produce less of it.”

That’s means that today the cure for cancer might be out there in some coral reef, but it could be gone tomorrow.

For The Environment Report, I’m Samara Freemark.

Related Links

Saving Underwater Forests From a Prickly Pest

  • A few years ago, urchins had mowed this huge kelp forest down to just a few square feet (Photo by Ann Dornfeld)

Most of the world’s forests are on dry land. But in a few special places on earth, forests grow underwater. They’re kelp forests. And they’re home to an astounding array of marine life. Trouble is, these underwater forests are vanishing. Ann Dornfeld reports on efforts to turn the tide:

Transcript

Most of the world’s forests are on dry land. But in a few special places on earth, forests grow underwater. They’re kelp forests. And they’re home to an astounding array of marine life. Trouble is, these underwater forests are vanishing. Ann Dornfeld reports on efforts to turn the tide:

A healthy kelp forest is so thick with fish and invertebrates that you’d swear you were looking at an aquarium exhibit.

They’re biodiversity hotspots – places that feed and protect an extraordinary number of species.

Brian Meux of Santa Monica Baykeeper standing on the deck of a boat in his wetsuit. He’s looking proudly at a thriving kelp forest along a rocky coastline near Los Angeles.

“This is our little jewel on this coast. Not only does the kelp forest have over 800 species dependent on it, but more than a quarter of all California marine species are dependent upon the kelp forest during some part of their life cycle.”

Since the 1960s, Southern California has lost 90% of its kelp forests. The culprit looks like a small purple pin cushion.

It’s a sea urchin!

Urchins love to eat kelp, and their populations have gone out of control. That’s because overfishing has removed most of the large fish and lobsters that eat urchins.

A few years ago, urchins had mowed this kelp forest down to just a few square feet. So Meux and a team of Baykeeper volunteers are trying to restore the balance.

They’re licensed by the state to do “urchin relocation.”

“what we do is go down, collect urchins by hand, get them on the boat and relocate them to areas where they will no longer harm the kelp forest.”

Sounds easy enough.

“Some of them you’ll want to just pull off the reef – they’ll look like they just can come off – I recommend using the tool. Urchin spines in your fingers… just not fun. ”

Or maybe not.

Either way, it’s time for the us to gear up and jump in.

(sound of diving in and scuba breathing)

Twenty-five feet underwater, the ocean surges so violently that the divers cling to rocks so they won’t be swept away.

It’s tricky to find a safe rock to grab because most of them are covered in urchins that have moved in on this young kelp forest.

But urchins aren’t the only migrants.

Huge purple sheephead and fire-orange Garibaldi fish swim by. A small octopus sits curled in a crevice. Pastel sea stars are everywhere.

Four years ago, this site was pretty much just rocks and urchins.

Two dives later, the divers are back on the boat.

Diver 1: “That was a workout!”

Diver 2: “That was a workout. I’m tired.”

After the team hauls up bag after bags of purple and red urchins, we try unsuccessfully to extract a spine from one volunteer’s finger.

Next, we move to deeper water a mile away. This will be the urchins’ new home.

The divers count the prickly balls as they throw them overboard.

Diver: “Purple!”

Each time a diver counts ten urchins of a particular color, they call it out.

Divers: “Purple! Purple.”

Similar kelp restoration efforts have revived kelp forests along other stretches of the California coast. But while those projects involved reseeding of the kelp forest, Meux says Baykeeper focuses on urchin relocation.

“We’ve found that mostly just get rid of the urchins and natural kelp spores will seed the reef and the return of kelp will ensue.”

Diver: “Purple!”

In all today, the team has relocated about 1500 urchins.

Between weekly trips like these and giant kelp’s ability to grow as fast as two feet a day, kelp restoration is a
heartening environmental success story.

In order for Southern California’s kelp forests to make a widespread comeback, Brian Meux says the state will need to limit the fishing that caused this problem in the first place.

And that issue’s as prickly as an urchin.

For The Environment Report, I’m Ann Dornfeld.

Related Links

Coral Conservation in the Caribbean

  • The island of Bonaire is somewhat of an anomaly in the Caribbean due to its remarkably preserved coral reefs (Photo by Ann Dornfeld)

Scientists say nearly half of the coral reefs in the US are in bad shape.
Many are dead. The situation is similar in much of the world. But not
everywhere, as Ann Dornfeld found on the Caribbean island of Bonaire:

Transcript

Scientists say nearly half of the coral reefs in the US are in bad shape.
Many are dead. The situation is similar in much of the world. But not
everywhere, as Ann Dornfeld found on the Caribbean island of Bonaire:

(sound of waves on shore)

Jerry Ligon was working as the on-board naturalist on a small Caribbean
cruise ship when he first saw Bonaire.

“And I saw how clear the water was. And I’d been able to compare, during
my stint on the cruise ship, other islands in the Caribbean, and I realized
how special Bonaire was. So that was at the end of my contract, so I
decided to stay here. And I’ve been here for 15 years!”

It’s wasn’t just the clarity of Bonaire’s water that made Ligon stick around. It
was the remarkably healthy coral reefs that lay beneath the waves.

“I can even talk to divers who come to Bonaire and they say, ‘What
fantastic diving!’ and they remember, ‘This is how the way it was in Cayman
Islands 25 years ago!'”

Ligon says the Cayman Islands might have even had more impressive
reefs than Bonaire’s back in the day. But coral throughout the US and
Caribbean has been in sharp decline for decades.

So how do Bonaire’s reefs remain intact?

Ramón de León is the manager of the Bonaire National Marine Park. He
says the island has an advantage in that it has no industries to pollute the
water.

The island is mostly undeveloped, which means relatively little farm and
lawn fertilizer run-off that can create marine algae blooms. And cool
upwellings in the region help balance the rising ocean temperatures. Warm
oceans can cause coral bleaching, which often kills the coral animal.

But de León says Bonaire really owes its healthy reefs to its history of
conservation laws. They date back to an era when such policies were rare.

“Bonaire start to protect sea turtles and turtle nests in 1961, back when
everybody was promoting sea turtle soups and nailing shells in the walls.”

By the end of the 1970s, Bonaire had banned spear fishing and made it
illegal to damage coral. For years, divers have been required to pay a
sizeable fee and take an orientation course before they’re allowed to dive
on the island. That helps them avoid touching the coral, which can kill it.

De León says the island still allows too much fishing. So several years ago,
he told the island’s fishermen they needed to choose a no-take zone to let
the reefs recover.

“I refuse to decide myself. I give the fishermen some prerequisites that they
have to have to close, and they chose which area. Is not my number-one
option, but is their number-one option. So I have to respect that.”

De León says because the fishermen chose the no-take zone, something
important happened. Compliance is high.

For all of Bonaire’s success in coral conservation, there are still some
problems. De León says its reefs suffer from leaky septic tanks and boat
pollution. And there are few of the large predator fish that used to maintain
population balance on the reefs.

But the island is a haven for researchers like Mark Patterson. He designs
underwater robots at Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences.

Last year he led a NOAA expedition to use robots to map Bonaire’s reefs.
He says the island’s reefs are valuable as a baseline by which other reefs
can be judged.

“If you’re an up-and-coming marine scientist and you go to a lot of the coral
reefs on the planet now, you might think that all coral reefs have always
look like this. And they haven’t! So the fact that we’ve got some pristine
reefs left is very important, and we’ve got to work very hard to protect them
because it shows us how the ecosystem should look and used to look
around the planet before things started to go downhill.”

For The Environment Report, I’m Ann Dornfeld.

Related Links

Bird Song Mystery Revealed

  • Superfast muscles help this bird sing. (Photo by Brian Peterson)

Scientists have come one step closer to understanding how birds create their songs. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Rebecca Williams explains:

Transcript

Scientists have come one step closer to understanding how birds
create their songs. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Rebecca
Williams explains:


(dove song)


That’s a cooing ring dove. And this is a recording of special muscles
the dove’s using to control its song: (sound of muscle activity).


Those muscles are called aerobic superfast muscles. It’s a type of
muscle that has been found in rattlesnakes and some fish. The
muscles were just discovered in birds for the first time.


The research was published in the journal Nature. Coen
Elemans is the lead researcher. He says a unique quality of the dove’s
song led him to investigate it further.


“And we found that some of these doves have a trill in their song, they
make a sound something like (mimics dove song). And during this
short trill, you get elements that are so short, sometimes ten or nine
milliseconds, that I was wondering, how can this be done? This is so
fast that normal locomotory muscles you find in vertebrates cannot do the job.”


Elemans says this discovery could be just the beginning. He says
songbirds have more complex vocal systems than doves… so
songbirds could be using even faster muscles.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Rebecca Williams.

Related Links

Battle Over Dove Hunting

Dove hunting is allowed in some Great Lake States and outlawed in
others. Ohio has allowed it for the past 4 years, and now, animal
protection activists are trying to convince Ohio voters to pass a ballot
issue that would outlaw dove hunting once again. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Bill Cohen reports: