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Sea Cucumbers: Finding a cure for the eco-plague of the 21st century

“I found a cure for the plague of the 20th century, and now I’ve lost it!”  Perhaps it was the connotation of the quote itself or a combination of the fervor in Dr. Robert Campbell’s voice that made it stick in my mind after all these years, but in any seacucumbercase that early 90s Sean Connery flick is ever so applicable.  If you haven’t seen Medicine Man, it follows the quest of a researcher on the verge of a discovery of a cure for cancer in the Amazonian rainforest.  The scientist’s desperate attempt to replicate a serum produced from compounds he originally derived from a flower continues to result in failure.  The climax (spoiler) reveals the cure’s source was not the flower but a species of a rare indigenous ant, whose only known location is lost to the bulldozers and fires of deforestation.

Perhaps not as sexy as the fauna of the Amazon nor as adventurous as Dr. Campbell’s pursuit, scientists studying sea cucumbers in the Egyptian Red Sea are making the same leap for a need of conservation.  In an all too common scenario not limited to rainforests, the marine environment is being overharvested for direct and immediate consumptive values while potentially losing important options values that could be discovered through bioprospecting.

quote-1cucumberAs a result of overfishing of sea cucumbers in the Red Sea, a ban was initiated in 2001 and 2003.  However, the ban did not lift demand and as a result illegal harvesting exploded.  With lackluster recovery of commercially prized species, researchers found a need to tie potential future drug treatments and long-term economic development to survival of the sea cucumbers.

“Given the importance of economic development in countries such as Egypt and the perceived low conservation value of invertebrates such as sea cucumbers, the linking of these factors to conservation is vital for the maintenance and sustainable exploitation of these animals.”

Researchers collected a total of 22 species and screened 11 of various commercial and non-commercial value for bioactive substances.  Although their results showed no activity against either gram-positive or gram-negative target bacteria, all extracts were active against eukaryotic cell types, were most active against a mammalian carcinoma cell line, had a level of variation suggesting that the extracts contained more than one active compound, and that these compounds act at more than one site.

“The conservation value of a species is often defined not only by its rarity and distinctiveness, but also by its utility. This utility is reflected in its economic value, which can be further refined into its direct,  indirect, and options values. Overexploitation of marine resources for their immediate, direct benefits may be at the expense of future options value of a particular resource.”

quote-2cucumberJust as a fictionalized cure for cancer was simultaneously found and lost in the Amazonian rainforest for some immediate short-term gains, so too could we easily witness the vanishing of a species like the sea cucumber along with the next great drug discovery.  When you connect the ecological and potential options value, in terms of unique bioactive substances, of a marine species there is no doubt that it overshadows any perceived direct value we assign to them.

And this message of conservation is one that is germane to all nations.
LAWRENCE, A., AFIFI, R., AHMED, M., KHALIFA, S., & PAGET, T. (2009). Bioactivity as an Options Value of Sea Cucumbers in the Egyptian Red Sea Conservation Biology DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2009.01294.x
Photo credit: Daniel S.

Scott Artis
Scott serves as Director of Development & Communications for Audubon Canyon Ranch (focusing on preservation, education and conservation science) and has almost fifteen years of experience spanning for-profit and nonprofit sectors in biotech, wildlife conservation and management, communications, and philanthropy. In addition to a strong track record in organizational growth and leadership, he is the founder of Urban Bird Foundation and Burrowing Owl Conservation Network, and presided over ECHO Fund, a coastal protection and restoration organization, as President for four years. Scott holds an M.A. in Environmental Studies with a concentration in Sustainable Development and Policy, degrees in Micro & Molecular Biology and Environmental Sciences, and has complemented his studies with a Master's certificate in Environmental Resource Management.


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