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Making Waves: Episode 16 (Feb. 13, 2009)

Did you know that many of the antibiotics we’ve come to rely on to fight infections and disease either don’t work or don’t work very well anymore? It’s a phenomenon called ‘antibiotic resistance’…it’s also known as ‘drug resistance.’

So what does this have to do with the ocean? Stick around to find out.

It’s Friday, February 13th, and this is Making Waves from NOAA’s National Ocean Service.

Let’s begin by putting this in perspective. The main cause of the drug resistance problem is that we use a lot of antibiotics … we use them to treat and prevent infections and illnesses in the animals we eat. And we use them to treat our own infections and illnesses. Because of our heavy use of antibiotics, the bacteria and other microorganisms that cause these infections are rapidly evolving ways to survive the drugs that are supposed to kill them.

Diseases and secondary infections related to antibiotic resistance are on the rise, and they’re getting harder and harder to treat. According to the Food and Drug Administration, about 70 percent of bacteria that cause infections in hospitals are resistant to at least one of the drugs most often used to treat infections.

Well, our oceans are not immune from the problem -- antibiotic resistant illnesses are present in the marine environment, too. But the good news is that our oceans may also be the source of cures to these threats. That was the message from a team of scientists gathered together by NOAA’s Oceans and Human Health Initiative. They presented the results of several new studies today at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago.

We’re going to spend today’s episode recapping what the panel had to say. Let’s get started.

(Coral, Sponges Point to Personalized Medicine Potential)
We’re going to start off with some great news – new tools from the ocean to fight the antibiotic resistance war.

A research team made up of scientists from NOAA’s Hollings Marine Laboratory in Charleston, South Carolina, Medical University of South Carolina, also in Charleston, and researchers at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina, have discovered new compounds derived from a sea sponge and corals that could provide significant new approaches to medicine.

They actually discovered two different things. The first discovery: new compounds that eat away the shield that bacteria use to protect themselves from antibiotics. And the second: new antibiotics derived from corals, sponges, and marine microbes that fight even some of the worst infectious bacterial strains.

The team isolated one such drug from a sponge that seemed to be thriving even though it was located in the middle of a dying coral reef. What they found in that sponge was a unique chemical compound that breaks down the biofilm barrier that bacteria use to protect themselves from threats.

The discovery could lead to a new class of drugs that could help to break down bacterial walls, and that would pave the way for the use of antibiotics that we no longer thought effective—because it’s those protective walls that are keeping many types of antibiotics from working.

And that’s just the beginning of the potential uses for new kinds of drugs derived from the sea. Dr. Peter Moeller, a NOAA research scientist and lead for the study, sees this as the start of new kind of medicine.

Moeller envisions medicines in the near future being customized to individuals’ needs, rather than relying on broad-spectrum antibiotics that we use today. All in part due to the variety of finely-tuned chemicals naturally found in the sea.

(Staph: A Beach Going Concern)
Next up, one of the three studies presented by the NOAA-sponsored group found that swimmers using public ocean beaches increase their risk for exposure to staph organisms, and they may increase their risk for potential staph infections once they enter the water.

To be more specific, the study found that swimming in subtropical marine waters increases your chance of being exposed to staph – either your own or possibly staph from someone else in the water with you – by thirty-seven percent.

For those exposed to staph, those who have open wounds or have weakened immune systems are at greatest risk of infection.

The team also noted that M-R-S-A, a type of antibiotic resistant staph, is being found in a wide range of environments – and that includes ocean waters…but less than three percent of staph they found in the sea and at the beach where they did their study in Miami was the potentially virulent MRSA variety.

It’s important to note that the research team does not advise avoiding beaches, but they do recommend that beach-goers take precautions to reduce risk. And they way to do that is to shower thoroughly before entering the water and after getting out.

This was the first time that scientists have conducted a large-scale study of this kind of beach users in recreational areas where there’s no sewage source of pollution. The next step is to learn more about the problem. The team noted that more research is needed to understand how long staph can live in coastal waters – both the normal staph and the antibiotic resistant kind. And scientists need to learn more about the risk to humans associated with beach exposures.

This research was funded by multiple agencies and conducted by the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel’s School of Ocean Sciences and the Miller School of Medicine.

(High Antibiotic Resistance in Seafood-borne Pathogens)
And finally, scientists from the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Science in Maine presented their new research at the event. They reported that the frequency of drug resistance in a type of bacteria called vibrio was much higher than expected.

This a big public health concern, because vibrio bacteria are the leading cause of seafood-borne illness and death in the U.S. What the findings suggest is that current treatments for this type of infection need to be re-examined. And that’s because the scientists found that the antibiotic resistant vibrio bacteria was resistant to the main types of antibiotics used today to treat this type of infection in humans.

The researchers point out that this naturally occurring resistance to antibiotics in vibrio bacteria hasn’t been extensively studied, but they add that the frequency of these resistant strains may increase in contaminated coastal areas where humans are dumping antibiotics and other toxicants into the waste stream.

The good news is that team found that these resistant strains were not resistant to several types of new-generation drugs, so their research may point the way to better strategies to treat these types of seafood-borne infections.

The thread that tied these different studies together is the link between the condition of our oceans and human health. That’s the focus of NOAA’s Oceans and Human Health Initiative. You can learn more about this effort on the web at That address is a bit unwieldy, so you may find it easier to do a web search for NOAA OHHI.

The panel presentations pointed out some of the emerging threats from our marine environment, but the studies also show just how critical the ocean is to finding new solutions to public health problems.

If you want to read about the presentations we discussed today, you’ll find the full press release about the event with links to more resources at

That’s all for this episode. If you have any questions about this week’s podcast, about the National Ocean Service, or about our ocean, send us an email at or surf over to

Now let’s bring in the ocean....

This is Making Waves from NOAA’s National Ocean Service. See you next week.