Blue gold

01 May 2011 | News story

The oceans already provide goods and services worth billions. But if we need any more reason to protect them, just imagine the vast untapped potential they offer for scientific innovation, not least in the areas of renewable energy and medical research.

Oceans make an enormous contribution to the world’s economy—coastal and marine ecosystem goods and services (fisheries, tourism, coastal protection and so on) have been valued at US$ 12.6 trillion annually. By absorbing and storing vast amounts of carbon, they play a vital role in tackling climate change.

But scientists and industry researchers are only starting to scratch the surface in discovering the vast range of benefits that the marine world could provide.

“Organisms have done everything we humans want to do but without guzzling fossil fuels, polluting the planet, or mortgaging their future”, says Janine Benyus, a pioneer of biomimicry–a rapidly-growing field of research and development.

Biomimicry studies nature’s best ideas and imitates its designs and processes to solve human problems. Some believe it could help solve global energy problems, reduce waste and promote sustainability.

Biomimicry is starting to have a significant impact in fields such as medicine, defence and building construction, and has enormous potential in the quest for sustainable energy. With one million species living on coral reefs alone, and perhaps as many as 10 million in the deep seas, the oceans are a rich source of inspiration.

Saline solutions

There are already numerous examples of proven energy technology inspired by nature including solar cells that mimic leaves and the process of photosynthesis. On the marine front, examples include the design of wave energy harvesters inspired by kelp and tuna, and wind turbine optimization inspired by the fin scallops of the humpback whale. Australian firm BioPower Systems has developed Biowave, an ocean power system that harnesses energy by mimicking the motion of underwater plants in the ocean currents to generate electricity.

Powered by microorganisms?

Although still in the pre-commercial stages of development, it may not be too long before we see fuels made from algae, including marine algae. Algal biofuels can be seen as a promising route to the production of future liquid transportation fuels for several reasons. Their production does not compete with agricultural land, they offer potentially good productivity levels compared to most conventional land-based biofuel crops, and they produce high grade oils that can substitute for petroleum fuels such as diesel and aviation fuel. With appropriate environmental and social safeguards, algae can be grown in the ocean and lower quality waters including waste waters.

Marine medicine

Another powerful argument for saving the oceans is the immensely valuable role they play as a source of medicines and models for medical research.

One compelling example lies with cone snails—a large group of predatory snails that defend themselves and kill their prey by firing poison-coated harpoons. There are thought to be around 700 cone snail species and each one is believed to make up to 200 distinct toxic compounds. Only about six species and about 100 toxins have been studied in detail, and already several important new compounds have been found. One has been synthesized as a painkiller and is being marketed as Prialt, used for the treatment of chronic pain that is not responsive to opiates. Morphine has been our most effective painkiller but Prialt is a thousand times more potent and even more importantly, it doesn’t cause addiction, or tolerance—the state when more medication is needed to achieve the same effect.

The use of potent painkillers from cone snails that do not cause tolerance is a watershed in medicine, equivalent in some ways to the discovery of penicillin. Some believe that cone snails may provide more leads to important medicines than any other group of organisms. And yet they live in coral reefs which are threatened by global warming.

The oceans enrich our lives in so many ways yet the full economic benefits of the services they provided are rarely included in our economic spreadsheets. A sustainable future will depend on healthy oceans that continue to function and supply the goods, services and inspiration we need to thrive on this planet.