Life within the world’s oceans have an ineffable beauty that will always defy the limitations of our discoveries. If we ever needed reasons beyond that acknowledgement, then here are timely examples of the interconnected nature of life on earth and reasons to protect our oceans and the biodiversity within them.
The ocean plays a surprising role in fighting COVID-19. With death and infection numbers escalating daily, the World Health Organization has made it clear that countries need to do three things to successfully fight this pandemic: test, test and test.
The dramatic increase in demand for testing has drawn renewed attention to the ocean’s genetic diversity. This “ocean genome” is a rich source of anti-viral compounds. In particular, enzymes from a remarkable hydrothermal vent bacterium have been key to the technology in virus test kits, including those used to diagnose COVID-19. Similarly, a protein derived from a coral reef red alga around the Canary Islands has been valuable in the fight against the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, an illness caused by a coronavirus closely related to the one responsible for COVID-19.
This renewed attention to the genetic diversity of ocean organisms also brings conservation and equity concerns — the subject of two recent research papers commissioned by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy (Ocean Panel). This research has found that multiple threats face the ocean genome, jeopardizing opportunities for new commercial and scientific uses. At the same time, there is an unbalanced relationship between low- and middle-income countries that are home to most marine biodiversity and higher-income countries, which possess the research capacity, technology, infrastructure and finances to develop marine biotechnology.
These recent papers lay out a clear list of actions that governments and marine researchers can take to safeguard the ocean genome and share its benefits equitably.
Marine Conservation Can Help Address Global Threats
The ocean genome, or the genetic material present in all marine organisms and the information it encodes, is the foundation upon which marine ecosystems rest. This genetic diversity determines the abundance and resilience of marine biological resources, including fisheries and aquaculture, which form an important pillar of food security and livelihoods for many countries. These ocean industries provide food for hundreds of millions of people worldwide, and employ over 10% of the world’s population.
Marine organisms are currently threatened by overexploitation, habitat loss and degradation, pollution, climate change, invasive species and more. Given the uniqueness and irreplaceability of the genetic material associated with each marine species, any event leading to their extinction will ultimately result in the disappearance of their genetic information. As such, these pressures also threaten the potential of the ocean genome to address current challenges like climate change and COVID-19 as well as future unknown threats, such as other new diseases.
Despite rapid technological progress enabling exploration of marine life at a genetic level, and despite the ocean genome’s promising benefits to society, vast gaps in knowledge remain. For instance, most marine species remain undescribed, most genes from marine single-celled organisms cannot be assigned functions, and the functions of some 90% of genetic sequences collected from marine viruses remain unknown. Compromising the conservation of these organisms, when we still know so little about them, could leave us without valuable assets to address and adapt to global threats from environmental degradation and disease.
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