(Santa Barbara, Calif.) September 2000 — A treasure trove of biological
material, in the array of marine organisms — from starfish to mussels
to sponges — attached to oil platforms or living around them, will be
studied intensively in a search for potential medicines and products,
as a result of a cooperative agreement and grant from the U. S.
Department of Interior, to be signed here September 27, as part of
President Clinton’s oceans initiative. The potential medicines include
anti-cancer and anti-inflammation agents.
Only two universities are receiving these awards, the
University of California, Santa Barbara and Louisiana State University,
since these institutions are national leaders in this type of research.
Each school will receive $500,000, to be matched by non-federal funds.
According to the researchers, many platform-dwelling species have
compounds that could be used in medicine, industry and food, by
In waters off the coast of California, platforms provide artificial
habitat for over 50 species of algae and invertebrates, and some of
these grow at very fast rates. For example, mussels and goose barnacles
on oil platforms in the region grow at rates equal to or higher than
the highest reported anywhere else in the world.
Of the 27 oil platforms off the coast of California, all are producing
oil. This study will analyze marine life around eight platforms in the
Santa Barbara channel, located off-shore from Carpinteria to Point
An added plus to this research is that the harvesting of these
organisms would not disturb naturally-occurring reef systems; in fact,
organisms could be taken as the platforms are cleaned. Some species are
already harvested for food. "For example, in the Southern California
Bight, mussels for human consumption are harvested on a sustained basis
offshore platforms, suggesting that platform species with desired
natural products also
could be ‘cultured’ with minimum impacts on natural reefs," said
Russell Schmitt, project coordinator and professor at UCSB.
At UCSB the research is divided into three components: community and
ecology; population genetics and natal sources; and natural products
pharmacology. Careful research along these lines is especially
important, given the diversity of species in the marine environment.
Community and population ecology (a team headed by Jenifer Dugan and
Mark Page, both assistant research biologists with UCSB’s Marine
Science Institute) is the effort to quantify the distribution and
abundance of organisms with potential products of interest for
biotechnology. They will study the factors that affect those species
and will look at the factors influencing population dynamics and
community structure. They will gather the organisms to be used in the
other two areas of study.
The population genetics and natal sources team (headed by Scott Hodges,
professor of biology and Steve Gaines, director of UCSB’s Marine
Science Institute and professor of biology) will study the degree of
population differentiation of species with desired products between
platforms and natural reefs and among platforms.
They will estimate the spatial extent over which platform populations
are connected to other local populations via gene flow or dispersal. It
is important to establish that organisms on platforms are genetically
similar to their counterparts on natural reefs (and therefore have
similar natural product properties) and could be harvested in a
DNA sequencing will be done for a suite of species that differ in their
potential for long-distance dispersal. A second promising approach,
called ‘elemental fingerprinting’ (see below)* will also be used to
trace the source populations of the organisms that live on platforms.
Using this technique, scientists can determine whether larvae that
‘settle’ at platforms are the offspring of local adults there, or were
produced elsewhere. "By sampling potential source populations directly,
we hope to be able to specify the actual
points of origin for organisms living on platforms," said Schmitt.
"This has never been achieved before, and has tremendous implications
for marine ecology in general and the
sustainable harvest of desired species in particular," said France
Cordova, vice chancellor for research at UCSB.
Natural products pharmacology (a team headed by Robert S. Jacobs,
professor of pharmacology, and Leslie Wilson, professor of biochemistry
pharmacology) has three components. First, they will search existing
data bases to determine whether species known to occur on Pacific
offshore platforms are already known to contain desired natural
products. Any matches will prompt further research. Then up to 50
extracts from species growing on oil platforms in the Santa Barbara
Channel and the Santa Maria Basin will be investigated for specific
compounds with potential wound- healing, anti-inflammation and
anti-cancer activity (for example, prostaglandins, coumarins and
compounds with taxol-like effects.) Finally, the mechanism of action
with specific classes of natural products found in species from the
platforms will be studied.
One chemical, coumarins, may represent an entirely new class of
potential anti-cancer agents and their phytochemistry and mechanisms of
action need to be explored, according to the researchers. There are
over 1300 natural coumarins that have been isolated from terrestrial
organisms but only a few coumarin compounds have been reported thus far
in marine and aquatic life.
The grant money comes through the U.S. Department of Interior’s
Minerals Management Service, the federal agency that manages the
nation’s natural gas, oil, and other mineral resources on the off-shore
continental shelf (OCS). It collects, accounts for and disburses about
$4 billion yearly in revenues from offshore federal mineral leases and
from onshore mineral leases on federal and Indian lands.