Deep-sea Exploration: Drugs, Damages, and Other Discoveries
Exploration of the deep-sea, the largest inhabitable environment on the planet, presents the greatest potential for new discoveries.
Expert panelists at the Society of Environmental Journalists addressed this topic during a Saturday morning session.
“The oceans cover 75 percent of the surface of the earth yet we have only investigated less than five percent in any detail,” Michael Perfit, professor and chair of Geological Sciences at the University of Florida, stated. “If you want to understand the Earth, then you have to understand the ocean floor.”
The medical and pharmaceutical industries have reaped the benefits of the exploration of the ocean.
“About 62 percent of small molecule agents approved for use as drugs can be traced back to natural products,” Amy Wright, director of Marine Drug Discovery at the Harbor Beach Oceanographic Institute of Florida Atlantic University, said.
Medicines, such as aspirin, are organic compounds are made by organisms.
Wright is working primarily on using these organisms to help cure cancer, along with other diseases such as malaria and neurological diseases.
The first marine product used for cancer is a sponge that occurs in New Zealand, which produces a compound.
“We synthesized the compound and it is now used for breast cancer,” Wright said.
Developing these pharmaceuticals involve researching the deep-sea.
There have been many attempts to access the ocean floor, but the most notable include Bathysphere, Trieste and Jiaolong, Edith Widder, president of the Ocean Research and Conservation Association, explained.
Trieste is deep-diving research submersible, which took a crew of two about seven miles down to the deepest place in the ocean, the Mariana Trench. The trench is located in the Pacific Ocean, east of the Philippines.
Jiaolong is the deepest diving human occupied vehicle on the planet. It gives the Chinese access to 99 percent of sea floor.
“From my perspective, human occupied vehicles are the only way to explore the ocean floor if you’re interested in biology,” Widder said.
Perfit agreed as he described Alvin, the most successful human occupied vehicle with more than 5,000 dives recorded. He said Alvin is manned deep-ocean research submersible with a 4,500-meter depth capability that accommodates one pilot and nine scientists.
First, scientists use tools to map the area, then sonar devices and finally employ a camera system for specifics. Once they have pinpointed a destination, they use Alvin to explore the area.
Perfit said they will continue to improve upon Alvin. Improvements include adding more room, better controls and the potential to dive 6,500 meters beneath the ocean’s surface.