Oceans and Human Health Studies
Comparative Toxicology of Humans and Marine Animals
Many years ago miners used to take canaries with them into the mines to detect if dangerous levels of poisonous gas were present. The birds were more sensitive to the toxic effects of the gas and so miners knew if the bird died that poisonous gas was present and they needed to leave the mines. We are investigating the possibility that marine species are the "canaries in the ocean" for environmental pollutants. In other words, we are trying to determine how marine animals and humans respond to ocean pollutants because if marine mammals are the same or more sensitive to these chemicals in humans then we will know that for those chemicals marine animals are indeed our canaries in the ocean and may be warning us of the danger we face from ocean pollution.
On the other hand, marine animals may be more resistant to the effects of marine pollutants. This finding would suggest that they may possess some unique cellular or molecular features that protect the cells. If this proves to be the case, we can try to determine how this protection occurs to see if we can use it to protect human health.
Already we are finding substantial differences in the response of marine mammal and human cells to environmental toxicants. For example, we find that bowhead whales are much more resistant to the cytotoxic effects of arsenic than human cells are (See Figure below). This suggests that bowheads have some cellular process that protects them from the toxic effects of arsenic. Future research will help determine what this process might be.
This figure shows the cytotoxicity of arsenic in bowhead whale (red line) and human (orange) lung cell lines. Arsenic is much more cytotoxic to human cells than bowheads. The results indicate that bowhead cells may have cellular processes that protect them from the effects of arsenic exposure.