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Marine Biotechnology in the Twenty-First Century: Problems, Promise, and Products
versity was the key to a large number of chemically rich sources from which treatments were derived. Biodiversity translates to genetic uniqueness and diversity, which in turn relates to new biosynthetic pathways and potential. Although many thousands of plant species have been comprehensively examined using modern analytical methods, there still exist many thousands of terrestrial life forms that await investigation. That this endeavor is not antiquated is borne in the discovery of Taxol, the potent anticancer drug discovered in the bark of the Pacific yew tree. Given recent successes, there is every reason to expect that undiscovered drugs exist in the same plants and animals recognized to contain medications for over 3,000 years.
Although the diversity of life on land is great, the world’s oceans are the center of global biodiversity, with 34 of the 36 phyla of life represented. The land, by comparison, is represented by only 17 phyla. Given this reality, drug discovery should have begun in the rich ecosystem of the oceans. Much of this diversity is found in the macroscopic plants and animals that are adapted to all the regions of the world’s oceans (polar, temperate, and tropical). Species diversity reaches very high densities on coral reefs, occasionally reaching densities of approximately 1,000 species per square meter, particularly in the Indo-Pacific Ocean where tropical marine biodiversity reaches its peak.
Given the enormous biodiversity of the world’s oceans, it is unfortunate that marine environments are the last great frontier for investigation. Unfortunately, with the pressures of economics weighing heavily on the pharmaceutical industry, natural product-based drug discovery has been characterized as encumbered and overly time consuming. Time will tell if alternative methods of accessing chemical diversity can replace this tried and true method.
Because the ocean is a much more demanding environment to sample, it is understandable that this ecosystem should be our last great biodiversity frontier. Over the past 30 years, marine plants and animals have been the focus of a worldwide effort to define the “chemistry” of the marine environment. Beginning in the mid-1980s, these efforts turned toward potential biomedical applications of novel chemical substances found in sponges and related colonial marine invertebrates. In this process, over 2,500 structurally diverse compounds have been found in marine plants and animals, and several of these compounds have been successfully interfaced with the pharmaceutical industry. Although no marine drugs have been developed as yet, several are in clinical and preclinical trials. Examples are bryostatin-1, ecteinascidin 743, dolastatin-10, and spongistatin for the treatment of