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Forests have long yielded lifesaving medicines. From cancer drugs like vincristine to quinine for malaria, about a quarter of the medications used in developed countries are derived from plants — in developing countries, it can be as much as 80 percent.
Increasingly, scientists are looking to a new, natural medicine chest: the sea. Worldwide, 21 marine-derived medications have been approved for use — and a potent new antiviral sourced from a Mediterranean sea squirt is in clinical trials for treating COVID patients, Stephanie Stone reported for Scientific American.
Many pharmaceuticals sourced from the sea — including the new antiviral plitidepsin — come from unassuming invertebrates known as tunicates, which feed on plankton siphoned through sieve-like structures. For example, the Ecteinascidia turbinata, which grows in dense clusters on mangrove roots, yielded the molecular mixture that led to a sarcoma and ovarian cancer drug, and a drug that targets small-cell lung cancer.
“Along with their food, [tunicates] pull in viruses and other pathogens, so they need strong chemical defenses to fight off infectious organisms — and that makes them promising sources for medicines,” Stone wrote.
There’s a twist, though. Over the past few decades, scientists have found that most of these defensive substances are produced by microbes that live symbiotically within the creatures’ tissues, rather than by the invertebrates themselves.
Given the focus on land-based biology and the complexities of isolating and testing new compounds, marine microbes have been vastly understudied. But that’s changing with more advanced techniques for exploring marine-derived medicines. Stone writes that the pandemic has highlighted the need for “a deeper pool of drugs to treat emerging infectious diseases,” as well as a new drugs to counter growing microbial resistance to established antibiotics.
Even as scientists begin to explore the promise of marine-derived medicines, the clock is ticking on regulations that would allow the world’s first deep-sea mining to begin — a process that would essentially scrape the seafloor for precious metals, killing fish, coral and other sea creatures in the process.
The International Seabed Authority, a United Nations agency tasked with overseeing mining in international waters, last month ended negotiations in a stalemate. That means plans to open parts of the ocean to mining for manganese, nickel, cobalt and other metals could move forward next year without environmental or economic regulations.
Global oceans already face a myriad of threats. Scientists argue that deep-sea mining could be devastating to marine biodiversity — and, given that more than 80 percent of the ocean remains unexplored, the consequences of industrial mining operations are not yet fully understood.
In addition to the immediate impacts on the seabed, deep-sea mining could affect interconnected ecosystems by generating large sediment plumes, toxins and noise that would negatively affect marine life far beyond specific mining sites. These conditions are bad in any ocean ecosystem, but particularly dire in the deep sea because many corals and fish in these environments live over hundreds or even thousands of years and are accustomed to stable conditions, akin to the ancient redwoods of California. If destroyed, it could take thousands to millions of years for these ecosystems to recover — if at all.
“Currently, we cannot predict what the impacts of mining will be on the vast and diverse ecosystems of the deep sea and other parts of the oceans,” said Emily Pidgeon, Conservation International’s vice president for ocean science. “We are only just beginning to understand the potential risks to the biodiversity of the oceans. Before any mining can begin, science must first clarify if and how deep-sea mining might be possible without endangering ecosystems that are still largely unknown.”
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Cover image: A diverse coral community in the North Atlantic (© NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research)
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