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Oceans & Human Health

Program Description

Marine biologists on a boat

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.

Red tide blooming in ocean near beach

The NIEHS has supported Oceans and Human Health (OHH) research to address marine related human health issues using a variety of research mechanisms for the more than two decades. NIEHS has supported Center programs using the P50, P20 and P30 mechanisms, program project grants using the P01 and S11 mechanisms, as well as R01 and R21 investigator initiated research grants. The NIEHS has and continues to support harmful algal bloom research that focuses on mechanisms of toxicity, structure of toxin molecules excreted by HAB producing dinoflagellates; prediction of HAB events; remote sensing of HAB events; genomics of subpopulations of toxin producing vs. non-toxin producing micro-organisms; analysis of the life cycles of toxin producing micro-organisms and the geophysical events that influence changes in stages of life cycles and HAB events that result in excess toxin release to the environment. In 2008 the NIEHS invested over $10.5 M in OHH research that addressed the following areas of study:

  • HABS
  • Seafood safety
  • Health effects of contaminated seafood
  • Marine Natural Products

The following research programs were supported:

  • Centers for Oceans and Human Health
  • Program Projects
  • Investigator initiated R01s and R21s

With the level of seafood consumption that is consumed both domestically and across the world, there is increasing concern regarding the safety of the seafood consumed. The NIEHS is invested in supporting research on the neurotoxic and developmental neurotoxic effects of sea foods that bio-accumulate naturally occurring toxins, e.g., domoic acid as well as those contaminated with toxic metals, e.g., mercury.

The NIEHS also supports research directing the chemical synthesis of marine toxins. Novel synthetic strategies are employed to generate enough material to conduct toxicity studies and develop potential antibodies to antigens/epitopes at specific sites on the toxin molecule. An additional component of chemical synthesis of marine toxins is to study and evaluate biological properties of the synthesized molecules and of the mechanism of action of biologically active compounds, to aid potential drug design and development.

The NIEHS has previously supported research in the areas of how marine pollution impacts human health through consumption of seafood contaminated with chemical toxins, e.g., methyl mercury, PCBs, PAHs, and naturally occurring toxins, e.g., domoic acid, ciguatera toxin. Investigator initiated applications on how marine pollution that bio-accumulates in seafood impacts human health are still encouraged for submission as well as other routes of exposure that result in adverse human health outcomes.

Program Contact

Frederick L. Tyson, Ph.D.
Scientific Program Director
Tel (919) 541-0176
Fax (919) 316-4606

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Last Reviewed: November 11, 2008