Web Extra Monday, May 17, 2004

New centers for ocean and health research

As the human population grows, more and more people are moving to the sea. At present, more than half the world's population lives in what is classified as a coastal area. As this number increases, so too does the potential for humans to disrupt marine environments, and for marine environments to affect human health.

In recognition of that potential, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) recently announced funding for four joint research centers — at the University of Hawaii, the University of Miami, the University of Washington and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) — to bring together experts from biological, medical and oceanographic disciplines to conduct basic research into how marine phenomena may harm or enhance people's health.

The drive to establish the Centers for Oceans and Human Health began as a bottom-up movement in the scientific community, says John Stegeman, director of the center at WHOI. "The centers are the outgrowth of . . . activity in the scientific community that recognized growing and poorly understood threats to human health from biological materials that are in or are put into coastal waters," Stegeman says. "It was understood by the scientific community that these problems were not being addressed adequately."

The idea to study the relationship between the oceans and human health truly sprouted, however, with the development of the Global Ocean Observing System in the mid-1990s, says Anthony Knap, director of the Bermuda Biological Station for Research. A unique advantage of the new U.S. program, he says, is the pairing of NIEHS, one of the member institutes of the National Institutes of Health, with NSF — in other words, linking researchers primarily concerned about human health with those primarily interested in ocean science. "The pairing between the NIEHS and NSF is a great way to start," Knap says. "To get public health people and environmental health people together is just not easy. This will certainly help to put those together."

The program chose the institutional sites of the four centers based on peer review of dozens of proposals for the centers. Each will have a different focus. The University of Hawaii center, for example, which is already active, will study ciguatoxin-producing organisms and try to develop better ways to detect those toxins, according to Ed Laws, director of the Hawaii center. Ciguatoxins, produced by dinoflagellates and other algae, cause gastrointestinal and neurological symptoms in humans who have eaten contaminated fish.

Laws' group, he says, will also search for compounds in marine organisms that have pharmaceutical potential. While the work, which has already begun, will hone in on Hawaiian waters, Laws says that some projects, such as the development of a ciguatoxin detector, will require samples from around the world, such as the Caribbean and French Polynesia, where ciguatoxin poisoning is a big problem.

In Miami, the research efforts will concentrate on the biology and genomics of microbes in recreational waters in the subtropics and tropics. Lora Fleming, director of the University of Miami center, says that the university's experience in geography and the biomedical and oceanic sciences, coupled with existing collaboration among scientists in the disciplines, played a decisive role in Miami's successful application. Fleming says that Miami's subtropical location, coupled with its proximity to the highly stressed tropical Caribbean Sea, will fuel the development of research projects whose results can be applied to other tropical areas around the world. Center-funded research will begin this month, she says.

The WHOI team, which includes the Marine Biological Laboratory and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will focus on the biology of harmful algae and pathogens in the Gulf of Maine as well as the physical oceanographic factors that affect their abundance and dispersal, Stegeman says. And the center at the University of Washington will research toxic algae in the Puget Sound area and how consumption of contaminated seafood affects human health — particularly among vulnerable populations, such as children.

Knap is looking forward to the day when results from study at the centers begin to appear. "It is going to be interesting to see how successful these centers are," he says. "Public health people think a lot differently than scientists, so the question is, how do you put that together?"

David Lawrence
Geotimes contributing writer


National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
National Science Foundation

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