The Future of Marine Resources as Pharmaceutical Products

This topic submitted by Megan Sabal ( at 12:44 PM on 5/20/07.

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The Future of Marine Resources as Pharmaceutical Products

Coral Reefs have long been considered the rainforests of the oceans. This is a reference to the extensive biodiversity which is found in both of these unique ecosystems. The high level of primary productivity, due largely in part to the intense solar radiation in the tropics, accounts for the variety of organisms found in these areas. Although the high biodiversity in rainforests is generally known, the general public is unaware of the extensive plethora of organisms on coral reefs. Part of this is because humans are land-dwelling organisms and tend to invest more time and energy into terrestrial research and conservation methods. This is unfortunate as marine organisms have greater pylogenetic diversity than terrestrial organisms whose unique characteristics are lost through this selective research. Some classes of organisms found only in marine environments are corals, tunicates, mollusks, bryozoans, sponges and echinoderms (Bruckner). A recent value of biodiversity has been the resources for chemicals which could be utilized in pharmaceutical products. With the great biodiversity and unique adaptations of marine organisms, “The prospect of finding a new drug in the sea, especially among coral reef species, may be 300 to 400 times more likely than isolating one from a terrestrial ecosystem” (Bruckner). Despite the great potential, marine bioprospecting has lagged behind terrestrial efforts because harvesting these compounds is more difficult, more dangerous and more expensive (Tangley). In order to take advantage of the potential medicinal benefits to be found in marine organisms, cooperation among researchers, companies and indigenous people must be obtained. Further technological advancements in harvesting methods which are more cost-effective and ecologically sustainable must also be developed (Allison). Although the potential is immense, there are various obstacles which researchers need to overcome in order to utilize these pharmaceutical benefits.
Accounting for the immense potential for medicinal benefits in marine bioprospecting is due to the unique adaptations of these organisms themselves. Many of marine organisms are sessile and live firmly attached to coral reefs and therefore cannot escape environmental stressors or predation by simply moving to a safer area. Instead they have evolved defense mechanisms which rely on bioactive compounds to deter predation, fight disease and prevent overgrowth by competing organisms (Bruckner). Chemicals with these unique properties have a high potential to yield medicines which could end up saving lives. One problem with utilizing these chemicals economically is that they are usually produced in minute amounts and only under specific stressors. In terrestrial environments many of these chemical-producing mechanisms are unnecessary for organisms and this is why bioprospecting in marine environments holds such untapped potential.
The search for pharmaceutical products from coral reef ecosystems has been in existence for many years, although it has not been widespread. Part of this is due to the obstacles presented through various harvesting methods as they are typically very expensive and yield a small amount of the desired chemical. Compounds will enter the drug market only if a cost-effective source of large-scale supply is available (Mendola). With this pressure there are a variety of harvesting methods in order to reach the highest efficiency and output. One method is chemical synthesis which includes chemically forging the desired chemical compound. In order for this to be economically feasible this process generally must take less than 30 chemical reactions (Mendola). Many companies rely on wild harvest, where the costs include the SCUBA equipment and boat, but an example shows that this process averages only 2 grams of substance per kilogram of sponge which means that 75 tons of sponge would need to be harvested yearly! This method is highly unsustainable and would wreak havoc with coral reef ecosystems over the long term (Mendola). Mariculture which is also known as aquaculture is controlled marine agriculture. These have potential for being an ecologically sustainable harvesting method, although start up costs are high and there is trouble finding suitable areas to start these sponge farms (Mendola). Ex Situ Culture consists of the cultivation of sponges outside of the sea in a laboratory setting. This allows for scientists to control the specific parameters such as water temperature, light, food and nutrients. There have been some small successes of ex situ culture, but no large-scale production has yet been achieved (Mendola). Another possibility is developing a sponge cell culture, but this has not been achieved yet due to complexities with many associated organisms such as bacteria, algae and fungi which live in close proximity with sponges and make up more than 40% of all sponge biomass (Mendola). Genetic modification holds potential, as the genetic code which codes for the specific chemical could be transferred into a laboratory-friendly microorganism which could then turn out the desired compound. Limitations with this method are that many of the bioactive compounds are not single proteins, but products of extensive metabolic pathways which are hard to transfer into a different organism (Mendola). Semi-synthesis is a final method which is comprised of the biotechnological production of an earlier chemical step and then followed by a limited number of synthetic chemical reactions in order to obtain the final product. Of these various harvesting methods mariculture is currently the most feasible, while ex situ culture holds the greatest potential for future bio-production (Mendola).
Despite the imposing obstacles in harvesting chemicals for medicinal benefits, there have most certainly been success stories. Algae have been used for cancer therapy, venom from cone snails for painkillers and chemicals from extracts of sponges for antiviral drugs (Bruckner). There are various potential pharmaceuticals, nutritional supplements, enzymes, pesticides, cosmetics and other commercial products all from marine resources. Over the last decade, Japan has been the leader in marine biotechnology investing between $900 million and $1 billion each year. The United States has invested much less into these efforts and even so, “…U.S. marine biotechnology efforts since 1983 have resulted in more than 170 U.S. patents, with close to 100 new compounds patented between 1996 and 1999” (Bruckner). These extensive results encourage marine biotechnology to grow 15-20% during the next 5 years. Most of the funding for this research and development comes from universities, for-profit companies, government agencies and conservation groups. Once a drug is identified, it is patented and licensed to pharmaceutical companies to develop, test and market (Bruckner). Obtaining the economic benefits from marine resources is a lengthy process, but one with significant potential which leaders such as Japan and the U.S. are seeking to utilize.
The potential economic profit which could be derived from these pharmaceutical products is immense and many believe will play a key role in the emerging business of ecotourism. Locals will then have a motive to protect the fragile ecosystems of coral reefs. Bruckner states that, “If properly regulated, bioprospecting activities within coral reef environments may fuel viable market-driven incentives to promote increased stewardship for coral reefs and tools to conserve and sustainably use coral reef resources”. Unfortunately, a large, initial financial investment is needed to start finding drug possibilities and this is followed by a long lapse of time before the drug is finally developed and available to consumers (Bruckner). Many local, indigenous populations do not have this money or time to invest in marine resources yielding economic products. Outside, affluent nations such as the United States, arriving in the waters surrounding these local nations and profiting from the biodiversity present without providing compensation or control of the resources to the locals (Tangley). This imperialist situation is rampant, but healthy relationships between outside companies and local communities do exist such as with the example of SmithKline Beecham Pharmaceuticals.
This company is one of the largest players in bioprospecting world wide and they gather their products in South Africa and Fiji. In exchange for the permission to gather chemicals from these countries surrounding areas, SmithKline provides equipment, training and certification in advanced technical diving to local scientists who can then use them on their own products. They also provide the means for scholarships for local students who are developing marine natural products (Tangley). These wealthier nations have the potential to provide a new economic means and bring new technology and knowledge to poorer areas. The reason this does not occur everywhere is that the situation concerning sovereignty over marine resources is vastly complicated.
Marine resources are generally considered common property resources which indicate that no one stakeholder hold exclusive rights to the area (Carter). This leads to a vast amount of competition and confusion over marine resources such as, oil wells, fisheries and the great diversity on coral reefs. There are vague boundaries which a centralized management has devised. Internal waters such as bays, estuaries and rivers are under the jurisdiction of the costal nation as well as the territorial sea which is the open ocean adjacent to the coast. Then extends an exclusive economic zone where special uses such as mining, fishing and dumping is allowed only for the coastal nation, but other nations may engage in non-destructive uses. Finally, waters outside theses designated areas are in the high seas and open to anyone (Cutter). Definitive boundaries are lacking in marine environments and there are many discrepancies and violations of these policies. These also allow for wealthier nations to come and utilize the marine resources found on coral reefs without consent of the locals (Honey). In 1993 the Convention on Biological Diversity created an agreement between industrialized and developing countries to start implementing guidelines over the access to coastal marine resources (Tangley). The aspects considered include conservation of biodiversity, sustainability and fair sharing of benefits with the source country (Bruckner). These are important steps in setting up a system which allows for marine bioprospecting to be beneficial to all countries involved.
Coral reefs are amazing ecosystems that harbor drastic amounts of unique organisms. Many of these life forms have qualities which make them excrete bioactive compounds which can be harvested and utilized in various pharmaceutical products. Coral reefs are currently under many stressors and are dying across the earth. One possible method for the conservation of these magnificent ecosystems it through the knowledge of how many life-saving products could be derived from these areas. More technological advancements with harvesting methods need to be developed in order to make this economically profitable while avoiding destruction to the reef itself. Then more international policies need to be created and enforced between industrialized nations and local communities so that marine bioprospecting can serve as a positive example of ecotourism. Coral reefs are brimming with potential medicinal benefits if only a system can be created soon to preserve these wonderful marine ecosystems.


Allison, Gary, Carr, Mark, Lubchenco, Jane. (1998). Marine Resources are Necessary but not Sufficient for Marine Conservation. Ecological Applications, Vol. 8, No. 1.

Bruckner, Andrew W. (2006). Live Saving Products from Coral Reefs. Issues In Science and Technology.

Carter, David W. (2003). Protected Areas in Marine Resource Management: Another Look at the Economics and Research Issues. Ocean & Costal Management. Vol.46, pp. 439-456.

Cutter, Susan, Renwick, William, (2004). Exploitation, Conservation, Preservation: A Geographic Perspective on Natural Resource Use. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Honey, Martha, (1999). Ecotourism and Sustainable Development: Who Owns Paradise? Island Press, Washington D.C.

Mendola, Dominick, Osinga, Ronald, Schaton, Wolfgang, Sipkema, Detmer, Tramper, Johnnes, Wijffels, Rene. (2005). Large-Scale Production of Pharmaceuticals by Marine Sponges: Sea, Cell, or Synthesis? Wiley InterScience.

Tangley, Laura. (1996). Ground Rules Emerge for Marine Bioprospectors. BioScince. Vol. 46, No. 4 pp. 245-249.

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