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Centers for Oceans & Human Health

Program Description

Scuba diver underwater with several fish

The Centers for Oceans and Human Health Program collaboratively sponsored by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) have established a new paradigm for linking the health and the rich resources of the Earth's oceans with the health outcomes of the Earth's population. By harnessing the various talents, disciplines, and expertise of scientists supported by the collaborating agencies; by combining the tools of genomics, proteomics, and metabolomics with physical oceanography; and by stimulating intercenter cooperation and coordination, this program offers tremendous promise for developing more comprehensive linkages between oceans and human health as the world's population continues to depend on one of our greatest natural resources for food, commerce, transportation, and recreation. Supported by the physical and biological science resources of the NSF and the NIEHS, the centers also demonstrate the capacity of federal research agencies to collaborate and leverage resources to foster high-quality interdisciplinary research.

Ocean-related human illnesses are primarily caused by consumption of contaminated seafood, and additionally caused by inhalation of aerosolized toxins as a consequence of harmful algal bloom (HAB) outbreaks. Adverse health outcomes in humans range from acute neurotoxic disorders such as paralytic shellfish poisoning, neurotoxic shellfish poisoning, and ciguatera fish poisoning to more chronic diseases such as chronic liver disease caused by microcystins and amnesic shellfish poisoning from domoic acid exposure. Presently it is not known what is responsible for or triggers outbreaks of HABs. Methodologies for early detection or remote sensing of outbreaks would provide a major mechanism for reducing and preventing exposures to marine toxins released by HABs.   Additionally, worldwide, human activities associated with point and non-point sources of pollution result in the discharge of billions of gallons of wastewater into oceans and coastal waterways. These activities represent human patterns and behaviors that exacerbate the adverse impact that oceans and coastal waterways can have on human health through exposure to water- or vector-borne pathogens. Conversely, it should be noted that oceans are teeming with life and serve as the world's greatest reservoir of biodiversity, including marine mammals, fish, crustaceans, mollusks, and countless species of zoo- and phytoplankton. It is this marvelous biodiversity that will allow us to take advantage of the oceans' bounty, and identify and develop marine-derived biopharmaceuticals to improve human health outcomes. Recent work has shown that marine invertebrates produce compounds with potential for development as pharmaceuticals, with applications in treatment of neurodegenerative disorders, cardiovascular and infectious diseases, and certain cancers.

Program Contact

Frederick L. Tyson, Ph.D.
Scientific Program Director

Tel (919) 541-0176
Fax (919) 316-4606

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Last Reviewed: February 19, 2008