Threats to the ocean’s vast array of plant, animal, and bacterial life – be it overfishing, habitat destruction, ocean acidification, or plastic pollution – may turn out to be threats to human life. In today’s Newsweek, Michael Behar dives into the search for life-saving drugs from the ocean:
“About 60-plus percent of all drugs are natural products, modified natural products, or mimics of natural products,” says David Newman, chief of the natural products branch at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). On land, we’ve already mined most of the easy targets for these compounds. Marine environments, however, have been largely ignored.
Newman says that’s changing, as new technologies make it easier for so-called “marine bioprospectors” to explore the ocean’s biochemical wealth.
Newman estimates that at least 30 research teams are experimenting with marine-derived compounds for treating cancer, neural degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, malaria, diabetes, depression, asthma, and other ailments.
Marine bioprospecting could expand the number of available drugs at least 10-fold. A chief reason for this is biodiversity. The oceans sustain innumerable hordes of distinct fish, marine mammals, plants, invertebrates, corals, and microorganisms. The level of diversity is several magnitudes higher than it is on land, and that gives marine bioprospectors an essentially limitless pharmaceutical wellspring to tap. “Compared to terrestrial sources, the oceans have a greater potential to cure many diseases,” says Luesch.