Medicines from the sea
Only within the last several decades have scientists begun to mine the rich marine medicines and nutrients available in the seas. The bodies of some ocean animals, in fact, could hold the keys to new treatments for human diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and AIDS. These creatures have survived changing environments for millions of years.
Ocean animals tend to be simpler in structure than humans. An advantage for medical researchers is that ocean animals’ cell structure and growth are easier to observe and understand than typical laboratory animals.
For instance, consider the recent research on squids and human brains. A single squid’s nerve fibers are large enough to be easily studied. Neurobiologists have been using them for awhile to investigate two human brain abnormalities: Alzheimer and Lou Gehrigs diseases. Or, let’s look at the work on cyanobacteria and AIDS. Single-cell cyanobacteria are neither plants nor animals. They evolved 3.5 billion years ago, the first photosynthesizing organisms on earth. Somehow, they managed to survive our planets poisonous environment and used the sun’s energy to produce oxygen, creating our present life-sustaining atmosphere. Researchers are currently testing cyanobacteria to see it they contain a substance that could help defeat AIDS once and tor all.
The horseshoe crab is also useful in biomedical research. Its optic nerves helped researchers understand human vision. Now scientists are intensively studying its large, bacteria-killing amoebocyte cells.
Among the ocean’s many coral reefs-often compared to rain forests on land-are life forms such as sea squirts and sponges, which defend themselves with powerful toxins. Researchers have discovered a variety of uses, therapeutic and experimental, for these exotic chemicals.
Our understanding of how human cells fight disease came from ocean observations. In 1883, Russian-born scientist Elie Metchnikoff noticed that free-floating cells in a starfish would swarm toward a foreign object in the starfish’s body and clump around it. His observation, and a quarter of a century of hard research, led to our present knowledge of the immune system’s cellular functions when infection is present.