Here are a few key areas of research:
- Chemical warfare between reef residents that lead to helpful drugs: reef organisms like corals and sponges have developed chemical defenses, many of which have lead to drugs used to treat heart disease, arthritis and cancer.
- Corals that protect themselves from UV radiation with sunscreen-like chemicals: how these chemicals work provides clues to causes of coral reef die-offs. Aquarius scientists were able to understand this process 10 times faster than if they were doing land or boat-based studies.
- Worldwide pollution: sea sponges have a much greater effect on filtering and improving water quality than previously known.
- Underwater vision: coral reefs have a profusion of colors and we are just beginning to understand how animals perceive these. Aquarius studies have improved our understanding of color vision, and the ability to see in the dark using polarized light, which has far-reaching applications.
- Fossil records: Many things are happening in our oceans that scientists can’t explain, and researchers depend on fossils to understand natural cycles that occur on geological time scales. Since coral reefs are unusually well preserved, they enable us to understand the present within the context of an ancient continuum.
“We know more about the moon than we do about our ocean, even though the ocean sustains all life on this planet,” said Dr. Sylvia Earle, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and One World One Ocean science advisor who led the first all-women team to the Tektite undersea habitat in 1970. “Only by making undersea exploration and research an international priority can we learn what we need to know about the ocean to be able to protect it and protect ourselves.”
Our knowledge of the ocean is limited, and despite all of our technology, our efforts to shine a light on the underwater world are still tiny. We often don’t see the signs of a crashing ecosystem until it’s late in the game. Aquarius is our best chance to change this. It’s a place where scientists can live in the environment they are studying, and not only change our knowledge of the ocean, but change the way we approach science itself.
Beyond science, there is perhaps a greater value to Aquarius: it is not only a critical brain trust and national treasure, it is an example of how much more there is to do. It is a beacon of inspiration. Our push to go to the moon in the 1960s wasn’t motivated by finding a clean energy source for the world, or bringing global peace, or curing cancer. We went there because it inspired and united people. And not just Americans — it was an accomplishment for humanity. Aquarius motivates us to look inward instead of skyward, to find an even greater sense of pride than landing on the foreign soil of the moon: understanding our home.
And while we’re down there on the reef, we may cure cancer too.
Photo credit: DJ Roller/Liquid Pictures 3D
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