The health of the oceans and the health of humans go hand in hand. Sustaining life in a variety of different ways, oceans provide us with the air we breathe, the food we eat, even some of the medicines we use to cure disease. However, imbalance in the oceans can have deleterious effects on human health. In particular, proliferation of harmful algal blooms and pathogenic microbes can cause human illness or, in acute cases, death, while also wreaking economic havoc through beach and fishery closures. Understanding this corollary between the health of the ocean and our own, policymakers and researchers sought to emphasize an inter-disciplinary approach in studying this important relationship, pairing oceanographers and other scientists with biomedical experts.

The Woods Hole Center for Oceans and Human Health (WHCOHH) was instituted as a center where precisely such an inter-disciplinary approach could flourish. Currently, scientists from oceanographic, biologic, and technical institutions all work in a cooperative effort at WHCOHH to address issues of human health as it pertains to oceanographic research. While current research at the center focuses on fundamental questions regarding the nature of harmful algal blooms (HAB), biological phenomena with significant human health and economic concerns, research in the past has also encompassed the genetic and environmental study of other microbial, waterborne pathogens, as well.

Looking Forward

In October of 2012, the NSF and NIH recognized the benefits of the center’s work, and pledged over $6 million dollars in additional funding over the next 5 years. In the second phase of the WHCOHH research will be more specifically focused on harmful algal blooms, utilizing complementary biological, hydrographic, and modeling systems to better understand this biological phenomena. By investigating what causes these blooms to start and stop, predicting more accurately the spread and extent of the contamination, and determining the long-term health implications of exposure to these pathogens (even at legally permissible levels) the WHCOHH will be at the fore of researching the ever more prevalent and frequent problem of harmful algal blooms in our oceans.

In addition to the WHCOHH, NSF and NIH also provided joint funding for the new Scripps Center for Oceans and Human Health, which will focus its research on tracking natural chemicals known as halogenated organic compounds in the environment, as well as many Oceans, Great Lakes, and Human Health Research Projects

The WHCOHH looks to build upon its past accomplishments and research in moving forward to the next phase of the center’s development. Looking to the future, the center will continue to utilize its proven inter-disciplinary research approach to further valuable oceanographic science, better protect human health and welfare, and continue to elucidate the “risks and remedies” that come from our relationship with the sea.

NIH award number: 1P01ES021923
NSF award number: OCE-1314642  

Last updated: September 3, 2014