The ocean covers over 70 percent of the earth's surface, comprises 90 to 95 percent of the biosphere's volume, and supports approximately half of the global primary and secondary food production. Marine organisms can degrade industrial and urban wasters and are a tremendous reservoir of food, substances important for medical purposes, renewable energy, fouling and corrosion prevention, biopolymers, production of biosensors and catalysts, and many other industrial applications. The fundamental knowledge gained from basic molecular research on marine organisms could fuel exciting new commercial opportunities and provide economic potential for future generations. Immediate potential benefits include improved management of marine resources such as fisheries, enhanced production of economically important species through aquaculture, development of useful processes and compounds from marine organisms, and new information of value for mitigating of environmental pollution and for resource utilization.
Human populations are increasing rapidly, and coastal ecosystems are being dramatically disrupted by human activities, including pollution and the depletion of some commercially important finfish and shellfish species. There is a sense of urgency about reducing human impacts on the ocean and a need to understand how altered ecosystems and the loss of marine species and biodiversity could affect society.
During the past two decades, the development of new technologies and instruments for biomedical research has been aimed at expanding our understanding of physiology, genetics, reproduction, development, disease, and nutrition. As a result of this research, significant insights and fundamental understanding of biological systems have been achieved. While some of these
new technologies have been readily incorporated into studies of marine organisms as models for understanding basic biology, the value and utility of molecular techniques for marine biology, ecology, and biological oceanography are only beginning to be appreciated (reviewed by Powers et al., 1990; Falkowski and LaRoche, 1991; Powers, 1993).
Among the significant contributions to our understanding of the basic biology of marine organisms that have been achieved are insights into the molecular mechanisms that regulate growth, reproduction, and development; environmental adaptation; the nervous system; information transfer and storage; immunological responses, and the synthesis and degradation of a range of biomedically valuable metabolites. In addition to fundamental scientific advances that will emerge as biologists continue to study marine organisms, new economic opportunities may become apparent in the areas of biotechnology, mariculture, and medicine.
Techniques of molecular biology will also contribute to our fundamental understanding of marine organisms and oceanic processes. For example, molecular techniques can be invaluable in addressing process-oriented questions in the ocean sciences that have perplexed oceanographers for decades, including understanding the basis for biogeochemical processes, larval recruitment, upper-ocean dynamics, marine biological diversity, ecological impacts of human activities, and the biological consequences of global warming. The physiological, biochemical, and genetic processes of individual organisms are often the most sensitive to environmental stress, and these processes are integrated into population- and ecosystem-level changes.
This report defines critical scientific questions in marine biology and biological oceanography, describes the molecular technologies that could be used to answer these questions, and discusses some of the implications and economic opportunities that might result from this research which could potentially improve the competitive position of the United States in the rapidly growing area of marine biotechnology (Figure 1).
Chapter 2 addresses the fundamental ecology of marine organisms, including the temporal and spatial distributions of marine organisms, how these distributions vary with time, the relationships between distribution and function, and the mechanisms that drive these processes. Chapter 3 discusses organismal responses to environmental conditions and issues related to studies of the physiological, biochemical, and genetic status of marine organisms. Chapter 4 details the use of marine organisms as models for biomedical research, some of the major discoveries of fundamental biological processes that have resulted, and the
potential advances in our understanding that may result from yet undiscovered marine organisms that will serve as model systems. Chapter 5 discusses the expanding field of chemical ecology, the role of chemicals in complex biological interactions, the nature of the products involved, and how these chemicals are produced, disseminated, and detected. In Chapter 6 the committee identifies basic research topics that it believes could benefit significantly from increased research support, recommends more effective mechanisms to encourage technology development and transfer, and proposes the need for a mechanism to promote collaborative partnerships among federal agencies, academic marine scientists, and private industry.