Scripps Conference Addresses Ocean Threats to Human Health


On the heels of the 2013 launch of a new program focused on investigating threats posed by ocean contaminants, leaders of the Scripps Center for Oceans and Human Health convened a national forum addressing a range of dangers related to health and the marine environment.

Gathering in March 2014 on the Scripps campus, leaders from around the United States presented the latest findings on threats spanning from toxins in drinking water to red tides to chemicals that accumulate in human breast milk.

“This conference covered many of the exciting new directions that the emerging discipline of oceans and human health is heading in the coming years,” said Bradley Moore, a professor of oceanography and pharmaceutical sciences at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego and the UC San Diego Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.

The conference gathered grantees—many who receive support through the national Oceans and Human Health program, which is jointly funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation—from Stanford to Harvard and universities in between.

Presenters included Amro Hamdoun, a Scripps marine biologist who is seeking to understand more about proteins known as ABC transporters and their role in limiting pollutant uptake in marine animals and humans. Working with UC San Diego Professor Geoffrey Chang, Hamdoun uses sea urchins as model systems to understand how and why persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, successfully infiltrate certain cells, but not others.

“We are trying to understand the fundamental biological rules for chemical accumulation in marine organisms and ultimately our bodies,” said Hamdoun. “Knowing these rules is how we will predict future problems and design safer chemical alternatives.”

Moore directs the Scripps Center for Oceans and Human Health (COHH), a program focused on tracking natural chemicals off California known as halogenated organic compounds, or HOCs, which resemble human-manufactured chemicals. These include polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, chemicals that until recently were manufactured and broadly used as flame retardants in the textile and electronics sectors.

“Southern California waters are the focus of our study, in part because our state has the highest reported incidence of polybrominated chemicals in human breast milk in the world,” Moore said.

The Scripps Center for Oceans and Human Health includes scientists at Scripps’s Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine (CMBB), San Diego State University’s (SDSU) Graduate School of Public Health, UC San Diego’s School of Medicine, and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

Scripps chemical oceanographer Lihini Aluwihare, co-director of the Scripps Center for Oceans and Human Health, described her collaboration with SDSU’s Eunha Hoh in employing molecular markers to trace the relationship of humans, seafood, and marine food webs. The scientists are studying a range of contaminants contained in samples of dolphin blubber, which can reveal contaminants in seafood since dolphins sit at the highest level of the marine food chain.

“If dolphins contain these compounds, it’s likely tuna also will, as well as swordfish, because they all feed at the same level,” said Aluwihare.

The scientists also collaborate with UC San Diego’s Department of Pediatrics to study breast milk samples donated to a newborn nursery, allowing them to probe the suite of contaminant compounds that are present in humans.

Paul Jensen, a Scripps CMBB scientist leading one of the COHH programs, spoke about leveraging his laboratory’s expertise in exploring the oceans for new marine-based medicines to understand toxins and human health. His group studies marine algae, invertebrates, plankton, and cultured bacteria—obtained via Scripps research vessels and from local marine habitats—and tests them for the presence of compounds, including HOCs.

“We are addressing fundamental questions related to the local environment around Scripps that may impact those of us that live and work near the sea and consume seafood,” said Jensen, who praised the interdisciplinary nature of the center’s work across marine microbiology, genomics, natural product chemistry/biosynthesis, and environmental chemistry and toxicology. “By taking a bottom-up approach, we want to identify the biological sources of the natural products that are relevant to this program and a healthy marine environment.”

— Mario C. Aguilera


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