Underwater habitats for humans don’t attract scientists; drugmakers focus on venom

May 14, 2012
Oceanography
Hitting bottom
Discover, May

This month’s issue of Discover dedicates a significant portion of its page count to underwater exploration, including a piece on seafloor sensor networks and a lengthy interview with underwater archaeologist George Bass. The magazine also addresses the chief concern of sci-fi superfans everywhere: When do we get to live underwater?

Actually, we can live there right now. Initially, sustained human habitation on the bottom of the ocean faced myriad technical hurdles — chiefly, making air that’s breathable in the deep ocean.

Once a diver descends below 130 feet or so, normal air, which contains about 78 percent nitrogen and 20 percent oxygen, becomes harmful to humans. By the late 1950s, scientists surmounted the issue by swapping nitrogen for helium, which is breathable and behaves better under intense pressures. During the ’70s, researchers built ocean-floor habitats that could shelter aquanauts for a sustained stay, but such projects have fallen out of favor because it’s cheaper and safer to send robots.

While science has mostly turned its back on the dream of undersea living, the tourism trade has not. The article points out that many new and remaining undersea habitats have paying guests in mind. For instance, Jules’ Undersea Lodge — which lies 21 feet beneath the waves in the Florida Keys – was founded in 1986 as a research station, but it now functions as a hotel.

Chemistry
Creepy, but curative
New Scientist

Recently, drug developers have been looking for relief in an unlikely place: poisonous bites and stings. In “Drugs With Bite,” available online at New Scientist (www.newscientist.com), James Mitchell Crow says that venom — be it from viper, scorpion or sea snail — has become one of the sought-after commodities in the pharmaceutical world. “Unlikely as it sounds, venoms have many of the attributes a good drug needs,” Crow writes. “When a venomous animal pounces on its prey, the chemicals it injects must be stable enough to travel through the victim’s body and able to evade its defenses until they reach their site of action, when they must hit the target with exquisite selectivity and minimum side effects.”

Of course, doctors aren’t asking people to ingest poison straight from the fang or stinger. Scientists sift through the toxic stews hoping to isolate helpful compounds such as the peptide chlorotoxtin, found in the venom of the deathstalker scorpion: It sticks strongly to tumor cells but ignores healthy tissue. Researchers are also working on medicines — for multiple sclerosis, Type 2 diabetes and hypertension — that are derived from the venom of cobra, gila monster and pit viper venom, respectively.

Aaron Leitko

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