Scientists Seek New Medicines From the Ocean

Sharon Kay
The Boston Globe
August 7, 2001

It grunts, it drools, and it's about as sluggish as a couch potato. But the aptly named toadfish—whose spiky face only a mother toadfish could love—can make world champion sprinter Michael Johnson look like a slow poke.

Blessed with the fastest twitching muscles in the vertebrate world, the toadfish can vibrate its swim bladder muscle an astounding 200 times per second, more than twice the speed of a rattlesnake tail and at least 40 times faster than the strides of the hapless Johnson.

Male toadfish use their bladder muscles to dazzle females with a unique mating call that sounds like a bullfrog. But, these days, toadfish are also wooing scientists who want to apply lessons of toadfish anatomy to everything from heart disease to human nerve regeneration.

After all, muscles that can contract and relax as fast as a toadfish bladder could provide clues on how to help failing human muscles of all kinds.

"When you want to develop a new system for a Ford Escort, you use the Formula One model to see the extreme version of motor performance," explained muscle physiologist Iain Young, who is spending the summer at the Marine Biological Lab in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, to study the Formula One muscle of the sea.

Once regarded as either dinner or a research novelty, creatures of the sea are getting increased respect among scientists looking for the medicines and therapies of the future.

From the ancient horseshoe crab, whose blood provides a common test for bacterial contamination, to the lowly sea urchin, which played a key role in test-tube fertilization of embryos, marine life is starting to take its place alongside more established lab animals, such as the mouse, in medical and basic biological research.

"I believe marine organisms can be used to eliminate disease and human suffering," said William Speck, a pediatrician who is now director of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole. "We now have the technology to visit the deep ocean floor, and, because of DNA technology, to more deeply understand life and ourselves."

In truth, researchers at the Marine Biological Lab have been plumbing the sea for biomedical knowledge for a long time—arguably longer than anyone else. Launched in 1888 by "17 biologists and a row boat," the independent lab has grown into a summertime mecca for life sciences, drawing researchers from all over the world.

But, as the pace of medical research has quickened in recent years, the Marine Biological Lab—one of just a handful of labs focused on using marine life for biomedical research—has seen its position in the world rise, too. Federal grants to the small lab have risen more that 50 percent in the last five years, from U.S. $9.2 million in 1996 to $14.2 million this year.

In addition to covering three quarters of the planet surface, oceans support the greatest variety of life on Earth, many of them adapted to extreme environments—fish that can see in pitch blackness, marine mammals that can accurately find the source of sound underwater, creatures that thrive at pressure levels that would kill a human.

Understanding how these animals function enables scientists to experiment with more complex mammal systems in order to understand and cure diseases.

Insights Into Human Diseases

Continued on Next Page >>


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