The Oceans - A Storehouse of Undiscovered Drugs and Medicines
The health of human populations requires a wide variety of chemical and physical supports from both local ecosystems and from the global ecosystem. The subject of this paper is the indirect relationship between biodiversity and human health, particularly with regard to coral reef ecosystems. Coral reefs are the most diverse ecosystems in the sea. “High diversity density gives rise to intense species competition and the subsequent organism capability to construct exotic defensive and offensive chemicals, many with pharmacological value” (Adey 2000). It is estimated that less than ten percent of reef biodiversity is currently known, and only a small fraction of that percentage has been tested for active compounds. However, coral reefs face numerous hazards and threats, both natural and anthropogenic. “Current estimates note that ten percent of all coral reefs are degraded beyond recovery. Thirty percent are in critical condition and may die within ten to twenty years. Experts predict that if current pressures are allowed to continue unabated, sixty percent of the world’s coral reefs may die completely by 2050” (Hazards to Coral Reefs). Many species that exist only in coral reef ecosystems will likely become extinct in the coming decades, and the pharmacological potential that these species hold will be lost forever.
Most of the drugs in use today have come from nature. Three common examples include aspirin, morphine, and penicillin. “‘In the old days you could wander around a corn field or up in a forest, take little dirt samples, bring them back to the lab—and what do you know? You’d found microorganisms that produce streptomycin, or actinomycin, or vancomycin’” says William Fenical, director of the Scripps Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine” (Mestel 1999). Today when you do that you find the same things. “Of everything you find, 98 percent turns out to be something you’ve found before. It’s costly; it’s inefficient” (Mestel 1999). In addition, drug discovery is going down and drug resistance is going up; new drugs are needed to combat the growing list of currently incurable diseases.
The most effective way to search for new compounds is to go to a place that is rich in biodiversity and gather what has not been studied before. Coral reefs are the perfect place to look. “‘Of the 27 diverse phyla of life, only 17 occur on land, yet 27 of the 27 occur in the ocean…There are one million cells in one milliliter of seawater and they’re all different, yet we know something about only one or two percent of those. The oceans are a huge resource for drugs” (Rayl, “Oceans” 1999). The best sources of pharmacologically active compounds are bacteria, cyanobacteria, fungi, sponges, soft corals, gorgonians, sea hares, nudibranches, bryozoans, and tunicates. It is important to pay attention to the ecology of the reef when searching for new compounds. For...