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Offshore oil and gas platforms could provide more than just fuel; cures for cancer and AIDS could be at stake

BATON ROUGE -- Offshore oil and gas platforms may begin providing consumers with more than just fuel, thanks to new Louisiana State University research that will study the marine organisms -- such as barnacles, algae and mollusks -- that cling to the legs of the platforms.

The $1.1-million study, which will be co-funded by an award from the U.S. Department of the Interior's Minerals Management Service and LSU, will examine such marine life to see if it has any pharmaceutical value or other commercial benefits. Scientists believe that some marine compounds could be made into treatments for AIDS, certain types of cancers and other inflammatory and infectious diseases. Other marine organisms that have the ability to stick to flat surfaces might enable scientists to make better glues and adhesives.

The award is the result of an initiative by the federal government to investigate the biotechnology potential of oceans. The MMS selected LSU and the University of California at Santa Barbara as the two universities to lead this effort. Both universities held signing ceremonies and press conferences to announce the awards on Wednesday, Sept. 27. Representatives from the MMS and the Department of the Interior were on hand at LSU's ceremony.

Associate professor Lawrence Rouse of the LSU Coastal Studies Institute is the project director for the research proposal known as "Evaluation of Oil and Gas Platforms on the Louisiana Continental Shelf for Organisms with Biotechnology Potential." He is working with LSU faculty members Frederick Rainey, David Foltz and Michael Hellberg, Biological Sciences; Russell Chapman, Center for Coastal, Energy and Environmental Resources; Barun Sen Gupta and Laurie Anderson, Geology and Geophysics; and with University of Louisiana at Lafayette faculty member Suzanne Fredericq.

The team will examine several different types of marine life, including algae, bacteria, bryozoa and mollusks, which all have known potential as sources of useful natural products. The researchers will try to discover which organisms thrive on which types of platforms, how those organisms populate, whether the variety of organisms differs at different depths and different times of the year and whether the organisms can be readily harvested. The research team will examine platforms both near the coastline and offshore.

"This project has great potential for allowing LSU to really get into biotechnology research," Rouse said. "Some marine organisms are known to have biotechnology potential, such as one bryozoan which produces a compound that can combat the growth of cancer cells. The platforms are like farms for these organisms; they serve as artificial reefs. Harvesting off the platforms is free, and it doesn't harm the natural environment."

Rouse said that by studying the organisms on the platforms, researchers might be able to find ways to encourage the growth of the more beneficial organisms, effectively creating a kind of organism farm.

"This is an exploratory project, an inventory," Rouse said. "We want to know what organisms are out there and where and how abundant they are. We will be looking for organisms with known biotechnology potential. Then the next step will be to look for new organisms with unknown potential."

Rouse believes this is the first time such exploration has been conducted in the Gulf of Mexico. He foresees some information exchange with the University of California at Santa Barbara but said there is a completely different population of organisms in the warm waters of the Gulf than in the colder Pacific Ocean off the coast of California. By sharing information, the two institutions may be able to identify numerous organisms with health or commercial benefits, Rouse said. The MMS was established in 1982 to oversee the development of the nation's energy and mineral resources while safeguarding the environment. The agency is also in charge of collecting and distributing revenue from mineral leases across the U.S.

Louisiana State University. September 2000.

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