June 02, 2015 23:39 UTC

Science & Technology

Condition of Oceans Affects Human Health

Read, listen and learn English with this story. Double-click on any word to find the definition in the Merriam-Webster Learner's Dictionary.

Scientists call oceans the world's most important resource. (Conservation International)Scientists call oceans the world's most important resource. (Conservation International)
x
Scientists call oceans the world's most important resource. (Conservation International)
Scientists call oceans the world's most important resource. (Conservation International)

Multimedia

Play or download an MP3 of this story
From VOA Learning English, this is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS in Special English. I’m Shirley Griffith.

And I’m Christopher Cruise. Today, we tell about a new way to measure the health of the world’s oceans. We also tell about efforts to develop medicines from underwater organisms. And we tell about a newly identified species found in the Caribbean Sea.

A new system has been developed to measure the health of the world’s oceans. Scientists say the system will change the way we think about oceans and how they affect our lives. It is called the Ocean Health Index. The index is designed to tell if anything is wrong with the oceans and, if so, what can be done about it.              

Greg Stone is chief ocean scientist for the environmental group Conservation International. He is also vice-chairman of the Global Agenda Council on Oceans at the World Economic Forum.

“The Ocean Health Index is the first global, totally scientific and transparent measure of ocean health that we’ve ever had. It’s meant to guide policymakers and the public to the underlying importance that the oceans are the life support system of the Earth and that we’d better take care of them if we are to survive on this planet.”

Greg Stone spoke to VOA from the Cook Islands in the South Pacific. Representatives from sixteen island nations met there earlier this year to talk about caring for the ocean. Mr. Stone says oceans are the Earth’s most important resource.

“You can’t manage anything that you can’t measure. So, like any good portfolio investments, if you want to make sure you are prospering and you’re taking care of your investments -- and believe me, the health of our planet is no greater investment that there could be -- you need a metric in order to measure it and see that we have a sustainable relationship with this resource on an ongoing basis.”

He says the Ocean Health Index will help end a lot of ignorance about the seas.

“You may have heard from one source or another that, ‘Oh, hey, the oceans are in trouble’ and you say ‘Why are they in trouble?’ And then somebody says ‘Well, the coral reefs are dying.’ And then the next day someone will tell you that ‘the tuna fish are all gone’ or ‘the haddock are all gone’ or ‘the halibut are all gone.’ And you say ‘Oh OK, I hear that.’ And then someone else will say ‘The oceans are turning acidic’ -- which they are. It’s been a very confusing landscape of information.”

And he says whether you live in the United States or in the middle of Africa, you should care about what happens to the oceans.

“Most of the oxygen that you breathe comes from the ocean. The oceans are the primary climate adaptation system. They absorb carbon. Hey, listen, if you want to know what the Earth would be like without an ocean you’ve got plenty of examples in our solar system -- all those hot, dusty, dry, cold inhospitable places are basically that way because they do not have a liquid ocean to provide all these benefits, including food. One out of four people on the planet get their daily source of protein from the ocean.”

The Ocean Health Index uses two hundred separate measurements. Once a year, scientists will use it to announce whether the oceans successfully passed the test.

People have looked to nature for medicines since ancient times. And modern scientists have searched the world’s rainforests for new medicines. But the ocean may be an even better source. At least twenty-six drugs that come from sea organisms are currently being used or developed. And a new generation of chemists hopes to increase that number.

Chemist Mande Holford has an unusual partner in her hunt for new medicines: a fierce, little snail that eats fish. But she admits that her studies of the creature are not all scientific.

“I fell in love with snails because their shells are gorgeous.”

Yet the tongue-like proboscides of the snails are deadly. They inject their victims with venom made of poisonous chains of amino acids called peptides.

“What I like to say is that the snails produce sort of a cluster bomb. Inside of each venom, you have between fifty to two hundred peptides, and all of those peptides target something major along the nervous system. One thing that they hit is a pain signal. When they silence the pain signal, the prey doesn’t go into fight or flight mode.”

So the fish stays calmer than it normally would, even as it is being eaten! Mande Holford says chemists have already had one major success using the snail’s peptides. It is a drug called Prialt. It eases pain for people with cancer and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

“On your neurons, you have these ‘gates’ that allow things to pass back and forth. The gate that controls chronic pain, they found a way to shut it down using one of the peptides.”

At first, Mande Holford may have wanted to study snails because of their beauty. But she is part of a larger movement toward marine, or undersea, research.

David Newman directs the Natural Products Branch of America’s National Cancer Institute.

“We’ve found some absolutely fascinating chemistry.”

After years of collecting organisms on land, Mr. Newman’s team now collects only sea creatures such as sponges or corals. He says that because these creatures cannot move, they use chemicals to fight.

“I have been known to say that weapons of mass destruction are alive and well on a coral reef, if you happen to be a fellow sponge who’s trying to encroach or you’re a starfish that’s trying to eat the sponge. These are extremely toxic agents because of the dilution effect of seawater.”

For an organization looking for ways to kill cancerous cells, such powerful chemicals are an inviting weapon.

William Fenical directs the Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine at the Scripps Institute for Oceanography in California. He says that about nine kilometers underwater lies what may be an even more promising source of medicine -- mud.

“Close to seventy percent of the surface of the earth is really deep ocean mud.”

His team studies microorganisms living on the ocean floor.

“These muds contain about one billion cells in the volume of a sugar cube.”

For comparison, that is one-million times the organic matter you are likely to find in a similar amount of soil on land. The large number of sea creatures excites Mr. Fenical.

“For the last fifty years, microorganisms that occur on land have been exploited for the production of antibiotics, cancer drugs, and cholesterol-lowering drugs. What we believe is that the ocean is a completely new resource for such microbial products.”

His team already has two drugs in development. And he believes there will be many discoveries of ocean-based medicines.

A small blood-sucking crustacean has been discovered in the Caribbean waters off the Virgin Islands. The creature may help increase scientists’ understanding of how disease is passed among marine animals.

The new species is called Gnathia marleyi. It was named for the reggae star Bob Marley. Paul Sikkel is a marine biologist at Arkansas State University. He says the species is the first new find in the crustacean-like gnathiid family in twenty years.

“What’s interesting about them is that they’re only parasitic in the juvenile stage. So they only feed when they are juveniles, and they go through three different juvenile stages -- one bigger than the other, each bigger than the other. And they look a little bit like, like ticks or fleas.  They look very similar to, you know, to terrestrial blood feeding organisms.”

Paul Sikkel captured the juvenile marleyi at what researchers call a “cleaning station.” That is a place on the coral reef where big fish gather so smaller fish and shrimp can eat parasites that have joined to their skin. Parasites depend on other creatures for food and shelter. However, the adult male marleyi do not eat. They just mate and die.

Mr. Sikkel studied the species in a laboratory.

“Adult males look a little bit like bulldozers. They have square heads, and they have these pincers on their head and they are very cool-looking. And the females -- small head and a really big body that’s full of eggs.”

About eighty percent of all organisms found on coral reefs are parasites. Gnathiids are among the most important parasites in the oceans. Mr. Sikkel says the levels of gnathiids can show how healthy a reef is. In some waters, he is seeing fish more heavily covered with gnathiids -- marleyi among them.  

“Too many gnathiids hurt the fish and too little coral, we think, leads to more gnathiids. So in a, in a nice healthy, you know, coral-rich environment, we don’t find very many gnathiids -- fish, you know, just get a few of them. But in areas where there isn’t much live coral, there are a lot more gnathiids and the fish get much heavier loads on them.”

Mr. Sikkel suspects that Gnathia marleyi may also be important in passing a malaria-like fish disease that weakens the animal’s natural defenses. His team is currently studying whether this pathogen is also present in the Caribbean.

“And then from there, once we find the species of fish that are infected, then we’ll do experiments to determine whether or not the gnathia marleyi actually plays a role in transmitting those blood-born organisms.”

Paul Sikkel hopes his discovery will lead to more information about parasites and the effect they can have on marine environments.
This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Yoshi from: Sapporo
11/12/2012 4:19 AM
Oceans, especially deep seas would be full of as many seacrets as outer space. It's superb that many substances useful for mankind's health and prosperity could exprored from there. I have not known there lives a blood-sucking life parasiting in large fish only during juvenile. It's inetersting there may exist blood-transmitted deseases among fish like malaria in land. By the way, I wonder how the reggae star feels in the wake of namig this paracite after his name. In order to preserve oceans playng the role of adaptation of land climate, measurment of the health of oceans with a scientific, transparent, standard scale seems very important . I would love its resent result to be announced in the upcoming article.


by: BIJU.P.Y. from: SOUTH INDIA
11/08/2012 4:18 PM
Oceans are the most wonderful creation of God. Jesus christ has done many wonders in the presence of oceans. He even walked upon the oceans. Even st. Peter was found to be a fisherman until he met christ. Our oceans open before us a vast field of livelihood, nay survival. I'm very glad to note that scientists and pharmacists are sweating their eye brows to find new medicines by making use of the oceans. I hope that they can come out with flying colors. Thank you.


by: Yoshi from: Sapporo
11/07/2012 4:00 AM
Yes, I agree we cannot manage anything that we cannot measue. It's interesting and important matter to measure the health of oceans to preserve sustainable environment for us to survive. It is reported that the measurements include features such as food provision, carbon storage, tourism value and biodiversity and the index is scored from zero to goal 100. The data coverring all around the world published this Augast in Nature showed its scores range from the highest 86 (Jarvis Island, a U.S. territory in the Pacific) to the lowest 36 (Sierra Leone). Japan is scored at 69. I wonder which regional sea was surveyed surrounding Japan. I don't know if this is the first time to have been surveyed and what is the passing mark . Anyway, it is important to compare a sore with the former one.

Learn with The News

  • Audio China Races to Find Ferry Accident Survivors

    Boko Haram militants have again attacked the Nigerian city of Maiduguri. Twenty people reportedly died in the explosion. Nine NGO employees shot dead in Balkh province, Afghanistan. US Senate set for new votes on NSA spy program. | In the News More

  • Audio FIFA President Sepp Blatter Resigns

    Four days after his election to a fifth term as FIFA president, Sepp Blatter has resigned. The head of the soccer organization made the surprise announcement on Tuesday as charges of corruption against FIFA continued to grow. The new elections will take place sometime between December and March. More

  • Audio Growing Evidence of Russian Military Involvement in Ukraine

    UN investigators say there is growing evidence of Russian military involvement in the war in Ukraine. More than a year has passed since the start of fighting between the Ukrainian armed forces and pro-Russian rebels. This week, the UN mission in Ukraine release its 10th report on the war. More

  • Audio India Suffers Fifth Deadliest Heat Wave Ever Reported.

    Unusually high temperatures are being reported across India for a second week. Indian officials are blaming the hot weather for more than 2,000 deaths. The severe heat wave is the second deadliest in the country’s history. It also is the fifth deadliest ever reported. More

  • Audio US Promises $18 Million for Vietnam to Buy Patrol Boats

    The U.S. has promised $18 million to help Vietnam buy American-made coast guard patrol boats. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was in Vietnam Monday to increase military ties between the two countries. Over the weekend, China rejected U.S. criticism of its land reclamation in the South China Sea. More

Featured Stories

  • Audio For a Longer Life, Go Running

    While all exercise is good, it seems running might be one of the best forms of exercise for heart health. However, running is hard on the body. Read on to learn about a recent study that claims that runners live longer. Also, get some tips on how to run safely and learn some great exercise words! More

  • Audio Scientists Testing Space Propulsion by Light

    Can the sun provide power for a spaceship to travel to the edge of our solar system? The answer may come from a small satellite. The satellite is designed to test the effectiveness of what is called solar sail propulsion. More

  • Vladimir Lenin sculpture

    Audio Words That Are Their Own Opposites

    Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, learn words seem to fight themselves -- they are their own opposites! Well, depending on the context. Context is important when learning a language; but with these words, context is everything. Learn more about these Janus words and why they are called Janus words. More

  • Audio Everyday Grammar: Relative Pronouns

    In this week’s episode of Everyday Grammar, we are going to discuss the relative pronouns who, that and which. A relative pronoun “relates” to the noun it is describing. Relative pronouns introduce a relative clause. Think of relative clauses as long adjectives -- words that modify a noun. More

  • Video Blind Boy Defines His Life With Music

    When Frankie Moran first saw his son Cole, he could not imagine ever sharing his love of music with the boy. Cole had cognitive delays and other birth defects. And he was blind. Cole Moran is now 12 years old. Cole plays music every day. He records his performances and listens back to the sound. More

Practice Your Writing

Confessions of an English Learner
Confessions of an English Learner blog

Tell us About Our Programs