Why We Should Explore the Ocean as Seriously as We Explore Space

We should be exploring the oceans as seriously as we explore space.

Anyone who's found themselves beneath a spectacularly starry night sky has to wonder what's out there. That same person, though, might stare out at a dark ocean at night and ponder the very same thing. And yet the resources we've committed to the vast, largely unexplored ocean is a mere fraction of what we've invested in space exploration. Jacqueline Ronson, writing for Inverse, makes the case that we need an "upside down NASA."


NASA's budget request for the 2017 fiscal year that began October 1 is $19 billion (last year's appropriation was $19.3 billion). The federal organization charged with ocean science is NOAA, and their budget request for 2017 is $5.8 billion. It seems to many, though, that both efforts are underfunded, and that scientists shouldn't be in competition as they mount equally valuable projects.

Global ocean-floor map (NOAA)

Still, the difference in committed dollars — and the technology it can buy — is exemplified by a comparison of the quality of their mapping equipment. NASA can chart the terrain of Mars every 330 feet, producing maps unlikely to miss much. In the ocean, by comparison, NOAA charts the underwater world in three-mile chunks at best — missing everything in between the points it captures — resulting in maps that capture only the roughest outlines of what's down there. During the search for Malaysian Flight M370, two previously unknown volcanoes were discovered. As far as the rest of the ocean goes, who knows what's really down there?

According to Amitai Etzioni, writing for Issues, the "oceans are nearby, and could prove helpful for addressing a wide range of national concerns from climate change to disease; for reducing energy, mineral, and potable water shortages; for strengthening industry, security, and defenses against natural disasters such as hurricanes and tsunamis; for increasing our knowledge about geological history; and much more." Etzioni proposes that until the government is willing to increase science funding altogether that some of NASA's funding should be moved over to a revitalized, streamlined, and upgraded NOAA.

In the meantime, XPRIZE — noting that only about 5% of the ocean floor has been thus far explored — has announced the XPRIZE Shell Ocean Discovery Competition. 32 international teams are competing for $7 million dollars to "push the boundaries of ocean technologies by creating solutions that advance the autonomy, scale, speed, depths and resolution of ocean exploration."

The 32 teams will be judged after two rounds of testing in which each will have a specified amount of time to launch exploration devices from shore or air with limited human intervention from shore, and explore the 2,000-4,000-meter deep competition area. When they're done, they have to produce:

1. a high resolution bathymetric map
2. images of a specified object
3. identify archaeological, biological or geological features

Jyotika Virmani of XPRIZE told Inverse, "The technologies that they are proposing are phenomenal, including drones that can go from air to sea, swarms of robots — it’s going to be very exciting." You can follow the latest breakthroughs on the competition's web page.

Anybody studying earth from out in space would think of it as a water planet. The oceans, of course, cover 75% of its surface, so we Masters of the Land command not much more than a puny 25% of it. Really, visiting aliens should want to meet the whales and dolphins, not us.

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Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.