The Silver Lining of Ugly Oil Platforms

How about this for finding a silver lining?

The offshore oil platforms that dot the Southern California coast have long been despised by residents because, quite frankly, they are ugly. The gigantic oil spill of 1969 off Santa Barbara, resulting from punctures in the ocean floor as one of the platforms was being erected, ignited a groundswell of public resentment and catapulted a nascent environmental movement onto center stage.

As one who covered that spill for the Los Angeles Times, it was hard for me to find anyone with a good word for the platforms. They looked like the work of a kid with a giant erector set and a twisted mind.

Chemical Warfare

But now, scientists are turning to those same platforms in the search for new pharmaceutical drugs for everything from headaches to cancer. Not the platforms themselves, but the small creatures that cling to the towering subsea pilings that hold the platforms aloft.

A $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Interior will let scientists from the University of California, Santa Barbara, pluck those creatures from the pilings and examine the exotic chemistry that allows them to fend of predators and disease. A similar program is underway at Louisiana State University, concentrating on platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

Most pharmaceutical drugs begin with plants, according to Steve Gaines, director of the Marine Science Institute at UC Santa Barbara.

“Unlike animals, plants can’t run away from things that want to eat them,” Gaines says. “And so a lot of their defense, instead of hiding and running, is chemistry. They play chemical warfare with herbivores that want to eat them.”

The sponges, sea squirts, mussels and other critters that cling to the pilings are sort of like plants in that they can’t run and hide either.

“So they are dependent on coming up with these nasty chemicals and things that keep other things from eating them,” Gaines says.

Salvaging Doomed Critters

He and his colleagues are betting that the chemistry that allows these animals to survive could also help humans ward off certain diseases. There has been some research on them, but they are hard to collect in the natural reefs they normally inhabit. They crawl into holes, for example.

So to collect them, it usually is necessary to destroy a sizeable section of the reef, thus depriving other aquatic animals of their habitat.

They have been so difficult to collect that the field is “wide open,” Gaines adds.

The offshore platforms, many as high as 10-story buildings, offered the scientists a unique opportunity. The critters that cling to the pilings are routinely scrapped off by the oil industry because they increase the drag on the pilings as the currents move back and forth, gradually weakening the structures. So the scientists worked out a deal whereby they could collect the animals before the industry’s divers arrive on the scene, thus providing a sizable sample for testing without destroying natural reefs. Gaines sees no environmental harm since the animals were doomed anyway.

The animals grow at rapid rates, in some cases faster than anyplace else on the planet, because the giant platforms partially shade the water below, thus eliminating the seaweed and other plants that would normally compete with the animals for nutrients and “some place to hang on to,” Gaines says.

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