The Doctor Under the Sea:

Developing Medicine from Coral Reef Ecosystems
Robyn Wellendorf

Northeastern State University

Summer 2012

Coral reefs are one of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth and can be found near almost every continent. While they are diverse and fascinating places, they are also very sensitive and have precise needs. They thrive in clear, warm, shallow to deep waters around the Equator and even the slightest change in acidity or temperature can have devastating effects on them. The combined effects of global warming and overfishing are raising concerns for these ecosystems. The diversity of the coral reefs is one that should be protected and not abused. As coral reefs contain about 25% of all marine species, there is much to be discovered from them ( Recent technological advances in medicine have found organisms that live in coral reefs to contain chemical compounds that can be utilized in modern medicine. In order to discover possible life saving medicines, the coral reef ecosystems need to be managed in a way that ensures their well-being and existence in the future.

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Coral reef bleaching leads to fewer large predators
Today, about half of our medicines have been produced from natural terrestrial resources (Bruckner, 2002). A few medicines include a cancer therapy made from algae, a painkiller made from the venom found in cone snails, antiviral drugs Ara-A and AZT made from sponges, and Dolastatin 10 made from a sea hare which is being tested as a treatment for breast cancer, liver cancer, tumors, and leukemia (Bruckner, 2002). Other medicines currently being developed from coral reef ecosystems includes ones to “induce and ease labor; treat cancer, arthritis, asthma, ulcers, human bacterial infections, heart disease, viruses, and other diseases; as well as sources of nutritional supplements, enzymes, and cosmetics (Bruckner, 2002).” As scientists delve further into coral reefs, they are finding more sources for treatments. The future is promising for bioprospecting in the reefs because technology needed to reach deep-water coral reefs is relatively new. Without a certain future for reefs, potential cures may not be discovered as quickly, if discovered at all.
Some organisms that are found in coral reef ecosystems are sessile and must have some way to protect themselves from predation. Ways that organisms such as coral and sponges do this is to have chemical toxins to ward of predators. These chemicals are bringing home to medicines like cancer research. The first marine anti-cancer drug that was created from a chemical in a Caribbean sea sponge. Cytosar-U® is used to treat leukemia and lymphoma by killing cancer cells (, 2011). It works by disrupting DNA synthesis in these cells. Another example of a medicine that is being developed from a coral reef species is Dolastatin 10. Dolastatin 10 is an anti-cancer drug that has gone through phase I and phase II of clinical development. It is comprised of dolastatins that have been extracted from a shell-less mollusk called Dolabela auricularia (Pettit, 1998). These are cytotoxic pseudopeptides that prevent abnormal masses of tissues, neoplasms, from forming, causes metaphase arrest in several different types of cancer cells, and induces apoptosis in lymphoma cells (Pettit, 1998). This makes them promising for use as potential chemotherapeutics.

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Dolabela auricularia

Not only are coral reef ecosystems important for the future of medicine, but they are also an important part of our oceans and coastlines. They protect coastlines from ravaging effects of storms and erosion all while being home to about 40% of the species on earth (, 2012). It is estimated that 11% of the Earth’s coral reefs have been destroyed and if we don’t turn this around, another 32% will be destroyed in the next thirty years (, 2012). Reducing carbon dioxide emissions is one way to help protect the reefs. When carbon dioxide is released due to the burning of fossil fuels, it enters our atmosphere and creates a greenhouse effect. This causes the oceans’ waters to rise, which damages the delicate coral reefs. Another agent causing damage to our reefs is over fishing. Whenever too many fish are taken from an ecosystem, it causes a disturbance in all levels of the food chain. If a predatory fish population such as grouper is decreased to low levels, then their prey are able to increase their population. Some scientists believe that we are 300-400 times more likely to discover and create new medicines from marine ecosystems than terrestrial ecosystems (Levins, 2011).
With the possibility of finding cures for arthritis and many different kinds of cancers looming on the horizon, it is important that we make the future a little brighter for coral reef ecosystems. Scientists have just barely begun to discover compounds that may be used to treat viruses and diseases like cancer. By ensuring that the percentage of coral reefs being destroyed decreases, we are giving researchers the options to dive into the ocean and bring up treatments to save and prolong human lives.

Citations: Should be done in APA format or journal format

About corals: Medicine. US Department of Commerce: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Bruckner, A.W. Life-saving products from coral reefs. Issues in Science and Technology. 2002.

Levins, N. Coral reefs: Nature’s medicine cabinet. The Nature Conservancy. 2011.

Medicines by design. National Institutes of Health: National Institute of General Medical Sciences. 2011.

Pettit, R.K., Pettit, G.R., and Hazen, K.C. Species activities of dolastatin 10 and peptide derivatives against Cyptococcus neoformans. Robial Agents and Chemotherapy. 1998. 42 (11): 2961-2965.

Threats to coral reefs. Coral Reef Alliance. 2012.

"Coral Reefs Saved my Life"
This is a short clip about how possible cancer-treating drugs are being made from coral reefs.