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.

This is one of those research projects that could lead anywhere, or nowhere. No one really knows whether the chemistry of the animals will help humans.

“It’s totally up in the air,” Gaines says. The scientists will grind the animals up, separate the chemicals, and do a variety of tests to see what looks most promising. If they find something interesting, the pharmaceutical industry will take the results and experiment with building chemical compounds that will allow humans to fight off diseases.

A Twist in History

It’s a long, tedious process that will take many years, but could pay off handsomely. After all, there is a precedent.

“If you look at all the drugs that the pharmaceutical industry uses for human health, the vast majority have been things that have been stolen from animals and plants,” Gaines says.

“It’s not things that scientists have sat back and said, oh, let’s create this new compound. The initial finding of the drug came from stealing it from some animal or plant and then they make different versions of it so they get some type of chemical that has some interesting characteristics.

“Then they follow up by modifying the structure slightly and looking at how it improves of reduces those kinds of properties,” he added.

Some of Gaines’ colleagues are searching for new anti-inflammatory drugs, others for cancer fighting compounds. They hope to collect at least 50 extracts from animals ranging from algae to invertebrates from eight of the 27 oil platforms in the area.

It’s an odd twist to the history of oil drilling in California’s coastal waters. The 1969 oil spill was such a major event that I wrote a book about it. (If you ever find an unautographed copy, buy it. They are extremely rare.)

Many people believe that spill was the primary basis for the environmental movement that swept the nation in the 1970s and 1980s.

Wouldn’t it be neat if something as important as a new cancer drug could emerge from the waters off Santa Barbara, still cluttered with oil platforms that remain just as they were so long ago. In a word, ugly.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.