A note on global warming, ocean acidification, and the future of medicine

Photo: NOAA Ocean Service

Photo: NOAA Ocean Service

The likely loss of natural chemicals that might have life-saving value in advancing the development of new medicines should be added to the list of consequences of global warming, ocean acidification, and loss of biodiversity.


August 1 post: New research on ocean acidification threat and recalling some political history

The chapter in the 2014 National Climate Assessment on Oceans and Marine Resources concludes:

  • The rise in ocean temperature over the last century will persist into the future, with continued large impacts on climate, ocean circulation, chemistry, and ecosystems.
  • The ocean currently absorbs about a quarter of human-caused carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere, leading to ocean acidification that will alter marine ecosystems in dramatic yet uncertain ways.
  • Significant habitat loss will continue to occur due to climate change for many species and areas, including Arctic and coral reef ecosystems, while habitat in other areas and for other species will expand. These changes will consequently alter the distribution, abundance, and productivity of many marine species.

Kevin Loria at Business Insider calls attention to the connection between global warming, ocean acidification, the risk to marine ecosystems, and the advancement of medicine (The Future Of Medicine Depends On The Most Fragile Places On Earth):

Coral reefs and other rare environments aren’t just fascinating and beautiful. The potent and diverse chemicals created by nature might hold the key to better treatments for cancer, HIV, and many other diseases that stymie doctors — but only if we can reach them in time.

Harvesting and adapting these natural compounds is crucial to the advancement of modern medicine. There’s just one problem: Many of the best potential sources for new drugs are at risk of extinction.

The ocean in particular is considered both one of the least explored and potentially most useful sources of new medicines. Called the “medicine cabinets of the 21st century” by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, coral reefs are the most biodiverse sites in the sea.

But they’re also the most vulnerable.

They cover less than 1% of the ocean’s floor, and more than a quarter of marine life directly depends on them. But they are in dire shape because of the effects of rising temperatures, pollution, and ocean acidification.

In its report Ocean Acidification: A National Strategy to Meet the Challenges of a Changing Ocean, the National Research Council of the National Academies concluded:

The chemistry of the ocean is changing at an unprecedented rate and magnitude due to anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions; the rate of change exceeds any known to have occurred for at least the past hundreds of thousands of years.  Unless anthropogenic CO2 emissions are substantially curbed, or atmospheric CO2 is controlled by some other means, the average pH of the ocean will continue to fall. Ocean acidification has demonstrated impacts on many marine organisms. While the ultimate consequences are still unknown, there is a risk of ecosystem changes that threaten coral reefs, fisheries, protected species, and other natural resources of value to society.”

The National Climate Assessment’s discussions of ocean warming and acidification, and of biological diversity, do not specifically include discussion of the threat to natural chemicals that might have life-saving value in advancing the development of new medicines. The NCA does note that Indigenous communities in various parts of the U.S. have observed climatic change impacts that result in the loss of traditional medicinal plants. How about giving this issue more attention in future global warming and ocean acidification impacts assessments?

Loria concludes:

[S]o far, many of the most promising sources of new medicine in the world are in the biodiverse hotspots most at risk of being lost. Sites like reefs are beautiful, interesting places. But even if they weren’t, they’d be worth preserving for their medical potential alone.

Unfortunately for much of the world, it could already be too late.

Earlier posts:

Elizabeth Kolbert on “The Sixth Extinction” (February 11, 2014)

Ocean acidification: Senate hearing, National Academies report call attention to growing concerns (April 27, 2010)

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