Thinking beyond and below Earth’s oceans



Nov. 17, 2015

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Dec. 17, one of the most anticipated movies of all time will open in theatres across the country when "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens" arrives to what will surely be the delight of millions.

The film, as evidenced by its title, will be the seventh entry in the series and continues not only the saga of the Skywalker family, but moviegoers love affair with the stars.

Whether based on fact - "Apollo 13" and "The Right Stuff" - or fiction - "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "E.T. the Extra-terrestrial" or "Gravity" - fans of the silver screen have rang up hundreds of millions of dollars in ticket sales for films based on what some term "the final frontier." But is it, really?

What about the earth's oceans and the vast, undiscovered worlds they represent? After all, roughly 71 percent of the planet's surface is water-covered and the oceans hold about 96.5 percent of that total. Given the role that oceans play in regulating climate and their untapped potential for food and health, is it time to think beyond, if not below, the surface?

"So much of our pop culture is directed toward space, simply because everyone can see the stars," said Rebecca Fox, an SRU senior mathematics major from Rockford, Ohio. "You're only going to see the ocean on a regular basis if you live on or near the coast. Space is easy to find and more accessible. All you have to do is look out your window.

"It's easier to imagine what's out there and what might go on on other worlds, rather than what's below the water's surface, because most of us can't see it."

Could that out of sight, out of mind thinking help explain the incredible funding discrepancy between NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration?

In fiscal year 2013 NASA's annual exploration budget was roughly $3.8 billion. Conversely, total funding for everything NOAA does - including fishery management, weather and climate forecasting, ocean research and management - was about $5 billion, while NOAA's Office of Exploration and Research received just $23.7 million, according to the Center for American Progress.

"We know so little about our own oceans," added Fox. "Isn't it easier to look into our own backyard than at an asteroid or planet? We haven't accounted for close to 91 percent of the creatures in our oceans. We know so little about our own planet yet we spend billions on examining others. We have better maps of Mars and the moon than we do of our own oceans."

According to NOAA, known creatures in the earth's oceans provide a tremendous source of chemical compounds unknown to the surface world or beyond. In fact, the agency website lists chemicals and biological materials from marine organisms now in use or development, including 10 anti-cancer drugs, drugs to fight inflammation, fungus, tuberculosis, HIV, malaria and dengue.

Additionally, a number of marine creatures have been used successfully in medical research and testing:

• A Caribbean sponge has been discovered to generate compounds used in AZT (zidovudine, Retrovir), which is used to fight the AIDS virus.

• A tentacled aquatic organism, called bryozoan Bugula neritina, yields a compound being tested as a cancer drug.

• Skates (a flat fish shaped like a kite) have provided clues used in treating vision loss.

• Corals and mollusks are used to make orthopedic and cosmetic surgical implants.

• Microalgae are used in vitamins and other nutritional supplements.

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• Bone grafts from coral skeletons, pain relievers from sea snail venom, and infection-fighting agents from shark skin are all under study.

"These kinds of things are helping to open the door for additional funding and research," said Krishna Mukherjee, Slippery Rock University assistant professor of physics and pre-engineering..

"Now it's just a matter of waiting for someone to kick the door in."

One "someone" is Hollywood super director James Cameron, a man who lists such noteworthy space films as "Aliens" and "Avatar" to his credit.

In 2013, Cameron spoke on Capitol Hill about his journey to the deepest part of the ocean, the Marianna trench, in his privately funded deep sea submersible, the "Deepsea Challenger," in order to increase awareness of ocean exploration.

Cameron then donated the vessel to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in an effort to further utilize the submersible for deep-sea exploration by scientists, while placing further emphasis on the importance of and need for federal investments in ocean sciences.

"I want the Deepsea Challenger to inspire kids to imagine themselves exploring the unknown," said Cameron. "As the next generation of scientists, engineers, teachers, business owners and political leaders, their enthusiasm for exploration, for taking risks, solving problems and pursuing knowledge is vital to the country and to the world."

Cameron was just the third person to make the journey to the deepest point of the world's ocean. By comparison, more than 500 people have traveled into space, while 12 people have set foot on the moon's surface.

But according to Mukherjee, the U.S. isn't solely to blame for the constant reach for the stars.

"The whole planet is at fault," said Mukherjee. "Sure, the U.S. and Russia started the space race, but other countries have followed suit - France, Japan, Germany - humanity as a whole is fascinated with the stars. Somehow, everyone got the notion that space was sexier than the ocean. Hopefully we'll start to see things swing the other way.

"It's not that we shouldn't explore space, we should because we've seen the benefits. It's that we need to achieve a balance - one which will quench the thirst for our outreach into both areas."

MEDIA CONTACT: Robb King | 724.738.2199 |