Risks and Remedies from the Sea

Scientists team up to study the ocean's effect on health

Source: Oceanus Magazine

Researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have embarked on a novel collaboration to investigate harmful algal blooms, ocean-borne pathogens, and potential pharmaceuticals from marine sources.

Now in its first year, the Woods Hole Center for Oceans and Human Health is one of four similar centers around the country, created by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) to study “risks and remedies from the sea.”

The Woods Hole center will receive $6.25 million over five years to concentrate on algae and pathogens that affect coastal New England, using local waters as a model for temperate coastal oceans throughout the world.

Human health and welfare are intimately tied to the oceans. Fisheries yield 130 million tons of food each year, while biologists and chemists continue to uncover useful medicinal compounds among the snails, sponges, and other marine creatures. At the same time, exploding populations of toxic algae cause respiratory problems and shellfish poisoning, as sewage and runoff fill coastal waters with contaminants that poison fish and infect swimmers.

Filling a ‘scientific gap’

As more people move to the coast, “these interactions between human populations and the ocean are going to be increasingly important to public health,” said John Stegeman, director of the new center and chair of the WHOI Biology Department.

Advisors to NSF and NIEHS found a “scientific gap” in the state of knowledge about the ocean’s influence on human health and called for a merger of traditional biomedical research with physical ocean science, said Frederick Tyson, the center’s program administrator at NIEHS. Four Centers for Oceans and Human Health have been established: at WHOI, the University of Hawaii, the University of Miami, and the University of Washington.

“The ocean is a turbulent fluid medium that’s changing all the time,” said Dennis McGillicuddy, a WHOI physical oceanographer and the center’s deputy director. “In order to make significant progress in health concerns, we have to grapple with how physics, biology, and chemistry intersect and interact. It’s really a fundamentally new direction for this research.”

Harmful algae, bacteria, and pathogens

Two Woods Hole projects focus on Alexandrium, a harmful alga that blooms yearly in the Gulf of Maine, producing a potent toxin that can accumulate to dangerous levels in shellfish. WHOI Senior Scientist Don Anderson and collaborators from the center’s genomics facility—housed at MBL—will use DNA analysis to determine if some Alexandrium populations are more toxic than others, and will explore how varying ocean conditions encourage or inhibit their growth. Anderson is working closely with McGillicuddy, who is mapping how coastal currents distribute Alexandrium, with a long-term goal of developing a model that can predict blooms. (See “Seeing Red in New England Waters.”)

MIT environmental engineer Martin Polz is collaborating with WHOI physical oceanographer James Lerczak to determine the conditions that encourage the growth of virulent strains of Vibrio, a naturally occurring bacterium that can infect swimmers’ eyes, ears, and wounds, and causes 95 percent of seafood-related death in the United States.

WHOI biologist Rebecca Gast and MBL biologist Linda Amaral-Zettler are investigating the distribution and survival of human pathogens like Giardia in order to create a model that can predict where and when they can be found.

-Andrea Baird 

Originally published: May 26, 2005