An ocean of resources.
Fourth in a series on Earth's oceans
Next time you bite into a luscious, satisfying bowl of ice cream, thank the oceans. That's right, without the thickening extract from seaweed known as carrageenan, your ice cream would be a liquid, runny mess. Same goes for your toothpaste. In fact, you'll find carrageenan on product labels everywhere.
Carrageenan is just one example of the resources we get from the sea. Other benefits range from food to biomedical wonders to minerals to climate control. And we are discovering new reasons to care about (and care for) the oceans every day.
One of the hottest areas of marine research today is testing chemicals from marine animals, such as corals and sponges, for their disease-fighting potential. Scientists already to this with land creatures like soil microorganisms and rainforest flora and fauna. But more medicines are needed, and the oceans are a promising source, says chemist William Fenical, who heads marine research at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
Scientists are finding that many marine compounds kill cancer cells. For example, Ara-C, a drug modeled after a chemical found in marine sponges, helps fight leukemia, a cancer that strikes children and adults. Currently, the National Cancer Institute is testing the safety and effective dosage of at least five other marine compounds, all shown to kill cancer.
In addition, surgeons are using coral for bone replacements. They have found that damaged bones patched with coral heal faster than those grafted with bone (see SW 10/4/91, p.3).
Other marine remedies in the pipeline include a natural antibiotic made by the dogfish shark, a hormone from salmon that fights bone deterioration, and chemicals from marine bacteria that, in lab tests, slowed the growth of the AIDS and herpes viruses.
FOOD FROM THE SEA
Of course, the ocean doesn't just heal us; it feed us, too. The same seaweed used in ice cream is also a fertilizer for crops worldwide. Seaweed is rich in nitrogen and other nutrients plants need. And some people eat vitamin- and mineral-rich seaweed itself.
Naturally, another benefit from the sea is fish. Low in fat and high in protein, fish provide a vital, healthful source of human nutrition. In fact, marine fish contribute more protein to the diets of people around the world than any other animal, writes researcher Peter Weber in a new Worldwatch report on oceans.
Fish from the sea are a resource we need to use more responsibly, says Elliot Hurwitz of the National Ocean Service. Due to overfishing, he says, fish stocks of the U.S. and the world are on the way to being wiped out. Last summer, the United Nations held a meeting to discuss fishing regulations for the first time in a decade. The U.S., for its part, just amended its fishing laws to limit the catch of such food species as cod and haddock off the coast of New England.
But, Hurwitz points out, we cannot protect just the species that is the favorable dish of the day. "A codfish doesn't live in isolation," he says. "It exists in a whole ecosystem," or collection of interdependent living and nonliving things. "You have to protect that ecosystem in order to protect any species you happen to be interested in at the moment."
LITTLE GREEN FRIENDS
Even the air you breathe is a product of the ocean ecosystem. Tiny marine plants, known as phytoplankton, release up to half of the oxygen we breathe as a by-product of photosynthesis, according to ocean researcher Peter Weber.
During the food-making process, phytoplankton also absorb carbon dioxide, regulating the amount of this greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. Fewer phytoplankton could result in a warmer planet, and we already have reason for concern. These plants, which also form the basis of the ocean food chain, are threatened. Studies in Antarctica showed that the growth of phytoplankton in glass bottles dropped off when ozone holes were overhead (see SW 2/21/92, p. 9).
We are already working to limit ozone damage. But there's a lot more we can do to help the oceans. To learn about ocean-wise actions people (maybe you) are taking, tune in to the April 15 Science World, when we top off our year-long focus on this threatened and vital ecosystem.
After all, the oceans are Earth's "lifetime." In the words of the Scripps Institution's William Fenical, "If we don't have the oceans, we don't have anything. If we destroy them . . . we're destroying ourselves."