While marine animals and plants are most commonly used as food sources, they contain a wide variety of chemical compounds that can be turned into products with beneficial medical and industrial uses. Thousands of new biochemicals have been discovered in marine organisms such as sponges, mollusks, algae and even bacteria.
"We view the ocean as a potential treasure trove for new compounds," Robert Bidigare, Ph.D., from the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, said.
According to him, the research is needed.
"Over 99 percent of the microbes in the ocean are not represented in our culture collections. Most of the existing drugs on the market are losing their effectiveness. Many of these are derived from soil bacteria. So we feel that the ocean is a new place to look for miracle drugs," he said.
It's a great place for exploration too.
"The ocean accounts for about 70 percent of the surface of the earth. The ocean is pretty much unknown. In every drop of water, there are millions and millions of bacteria... that's an ecosystem to these organisms," Bidigare said.
According to Bidigare, there are currently about 30 marine-derived pharmaceuticals in various stages of clinical trials. The following highlights some of the chemicals and biological materials isolated from marine organisms that are already in use or are being developed:
- Anti-viral drugs - Sponge, Cryptotethya crypta - Commercially available
- Anti-cancer drug - Bryozoan, Bugula neritina - Phase II trials
- Anti-cancer drug - Sea hare, Dolabella auricularia - Phase I trials
- Anti-cancer drug - Tunicate, Ecteinascidia turbinata - Phase III trials
- Anti-cancer drug - Gastropod, Elysia rubefescens - Advanced pre-clinical trials
- Anti-inflammatory agent - Marine fungus - In development
- Anti-fungal agent - Sponge, Trachycladus - In development
- Anti-tuberculosis agent - Sea whip, Pseudopterogorgia - In development
- Anti-HIV agent - Ascidian (tunicate) - In development
~Source: U.S. Commission on OCEAN POLICY
Bidigare said another interesting aspect of this research is the ability to detect harm from different marine organisms.
"Recently, we've detected a brand new neurotoxin that's present in many strains of cyanobacteria, and it's been shown in previous studies that this neurotoxin actually produces an ALS syndrome (Lou Gehrig's disease) in humans and it could be affecting marine mammals as well. It would be exposed to humans, through the diet," He said.
Michael Rapeй, Ph.D., from the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, said many people hear the word “bacteria” and think it's harmful.
"Those are the bacteria that the public hear about -- the ones that are making people sick and the ones that are causing disease. That's unfortunate... because they are such a tiny minority of the bacteria on earth. Most of the bacteria on earth are doing good things to keep us alive. We depend on them for every breath we take," He said.
He emphasizes that many of these "good" bacteria researchers find in the oceans could have a life-saving effect on people worldwide.