'Keys to cures' -- an online expedition to the frontier of biomedical research

August 04, 1999

How far would you go to find a cure for cancer? How far would you go to discover new species and to preserve a unique ecosystem? Dr. Shirley Pomponi and an international team of scientists faced these questions and came up with an answer: 3000 feet...straight down. That's how deep they'll be diving into the waters of the Florida Keys and the Gulf of Mexico, prospecting for powerful new drugs and performing a pioneering submersible-based biodiversity survey of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The rest of us will only have to travel as far as the nearest computer to join in this noble scientific adventure.

@Sea, (http://www.at-sea.org) , a website sponsored by Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution (HBOI), will have a correspondent on board the Research Vessel EDWIN LINK, transmitting daily dispatches from Dr. Pomponi's ambitious science cruise. From August 5 - 25, @Sea will provide a window into the world of science during every stage of this complex field operation--each submersible launch, each scuba dive, each breakthrough discovery or unexpected challenge.

Coral reef ecosystems provide a compelling setting for biomedical research. Many adult reef inhabitants spend their lives permanently affixed to the spot where they settled as juveniles. Since they cannot move to escape predators, to accommodate new neighbors, to seek out mates, or to avoid disease, these animals have evolved complex arsenals of chemical agents to compensate for their immobility. Indeed, life on a coral reef has been likened to nonstop chemical warfare. Among the millions of untested, powerful chemical compounds used by reef animals, scientists hope to find potent new medicines to kill tumors, dull pain, fight inflammation and ward off infections.

In addition to their search for new medicines from the sea, mission scientists will be cataloging sea life, using Harbor Branch's JOHNSON-SEA-LINK (JSL) submersible to study underwater habitats never witnessed by human eyes. "We will be carefully observing, documenting, and collecting samples and assessing their potential to yield new drugs for human benefit" explains Dr. Pomponi. "But once we find an interesting compound, our emphasis shifts toward creating the compound in the lab so that wild populations of the source species will be protected. While we are doing our collection work, we will be simultaneously gathering important data about the deep-sea environment that will be used for conservation. Our work is about health...both for people and for the ecosystems that support our continued research." Nowhere on earth is biodiversity greater than in tropical rainforests and coral reefs. Reefs, like rainforests, are threatened by human activities. However, reefs remain hidden underwater--out of sight and often out of mind. The biodiversity survey by Pomponi and her colleagues will be the first ever at depths attainable by the Harbor Branch JSL submersible. It will provide a "snapshot" of life in the waters of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary--a baseline that resource managers can use to evaluate future threats and prevent damage to these unique and valuable ecosystems.

@Sea's "Keys to Cures" mission coverage will chronicle a wide range of marine science activities, compliments of the multidisciplinary nature of biomedical marine research. Two submersible dives are planned daily to a variety of exotic underwater locations. Scuba teams will depart from the main research vessel in small boats to stage their own shallow-water collection missions. Samples will be processed in high-tech labs on board the R/V EDWIN LINK and analyzed separately by chemists, microbiologists, molecular geneticists, and cell culture experts. Set against a tropical backdrop, this mission is set to deliver a unique mix of adventure and educational insights from the leading edge of human discovery.

The @Sea website seeks to open a window on the ocean realm for students, educators, scientists, the media, funding agencies, and policy-makers. Online expeditions raise public awareness of threats facing the marine environment, illustrating how the health of our planet is inextricably linked to the state of our oceans. @Sea is a production of The Media Lab of Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution. The Media Lab develops innovative, educational multimedia programs. Their web sites and interactive CD-ROMs focus on marine science and the environment.

Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, Inc. is one of the world's leading not-for-profit oceanographic research organizations, dedicated to the exploration of the earth's oceans, estuaries and coastal regions, for the benefit of mankind.

Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution

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