Medicine from the Sea

From slime to sponges, scientists are plumbing the ocean's depths for new medications to treat cancer, pain and other ailments

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By the time we reached the fourth platform, we’d returned to silty waters opaque with Mississippi River mud, which may well also contain contaminants ranging from petroleum runoff and mercury from power-plant emissions to raw sewage. Perhaps most toxic to marine life is chemical fertilizer, washed from farms upriver. In fact, many environments where aquatic life once thrived have simply vanished; estuaries and bays along much of the coastal United States were long ago filled or otherwise destroyed. Ironically, oil platforms some distance from shore may constitute the last best hope for some marine organisms.

The Spree reached the last site, 23-EE, just as a strong wind rose out of the south. The crew secured the vessel to the rig, but the Spree would not stay put; the wind and an opposing north current battered us at our mooring. What to do? The divers said they could avoid being crushed by the tossing boat—but only if they could discern the vessel from below, which was unlikely. About 60 feet down, visibility would be nil. Yet nobody wanted to quit. “Well, what’s the worst that could happen?” asked one diver. “We get lost, or die.” Everyone laughed nervously.

“Well, if you get lost, I’ll look for you,” Captain Frank said. “For a couple of hours at least, depending on how much money you left in your wallet.” More anxious laughter.

“What about the surface sample?” inquired Rainey.

“That is a no-go,” said Mark Miller, one of the divers. Whitecapped four-foot swells dashed against the platform legs, which were studded with several inches of razor-sharp mussel shells.

“Let’s abandon this,” Rainey said. “It’s not worth the risk.” He may be a landlubber microbiologist, but he respected the power of the ocean. Whatever promising slime was down there, it would have to wait for another day. 


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