Blue Space: Connecting Ocean Health and Human Health in a National Marine Sanctuary

Friday, June 24, 2022


Semra Aytur

Drs. Semra Aytur and John Bucci, with transdisciplinary colleagues from SUNY Albany, Marine Microverse Institute, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), recently published a metagenomic research study in Nature Scientific Reports ( about important connections between ocean health and human health. The term 'blue space' is an emerging research term that reflects these connections and our relationship to water. Blue space supports our physical and mental health in many ways, from micro to macro levels.

For example, microbes in the ocean’s marine environment constitute a large percentage of the global marine ecosystem and function to maintain a healthy food web.
These microbes also drive essential processes such as nutrient regeneration, organic matter oxidation, removal of toxins, and production of medically relevant biosynthetic compounds.
This is important because the proliferation of antibiotic resistant bacteria has also necessitated the renewed search for natural products. Natural products have historically made major contributions to medicine, especially for cancer and infectious diseases. In continental shelf habitats such as the Gulf of Maine (GoM), relatively little is known of the microbial community abundance, biodiversity, and natural product potential.

This study is the first to provide a time-series assessment (2017–2020) of the sediment microbial structure in areas open and closed to fishing within the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary (SBNMS) in the GoM. It reflects one of the first transdisciplinary efforts using a whole metagenome sequencing (WMS) approach to characterize sediment microbial biodiversity in partnership with the SBNMS, and demonstrates the potential for future ecological and biomedical research.
The team collected samples from the ocean floor from seven sites in the SBNMS, which were then analyzed in lab in partnership with the Hubbard Center for Genome Studies at UNH and SUNY Albany.

Taxonomic abundance was calculated annually for sediment samples collected during the summer and fall seasons. Bioinformatics analyses identified more than 5900 different species across multiple years. Non-metric multidimensional scaling methods and generalized linear models demonstrated that species richness was inversely associated with fishing exposure levels and varied by year. Additionally, the discovery of 12 unique biosynthetic gene clusters (BGCs) collected across sites confirmed the potential for medically relevant natural product discovery in the SBNMS.
These BGCs encode various secondary metabolites such as nonribosomal peptide synthetases (NRPS), which have antibacterial and antitumor properties. Medical researchers around the world are beginning to use ocean-derived bacterial strains in treatments for diseases such as brain cancer (
Notably, a growing body of research also suggests that blue space may play an important role in supporting mental health at macro levels. For example, an Australian study found that access to blue space was associated with lower levels of psychological distress, even after controlling for age, gender, income and neighborhood features such as crime rates and wealth (Nutsford et al. 2016). Emerging research suggests that exposure to nature may change brain network functional connectivity, as measured by fMRI (Kuhn, 2021).

The present study conducted in the SBNMS provides a practical assessment of how human behavior, climate change, and temporal trends may affect microbial community structure in a coastal marine sanctuary, in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
This research revealed important planetary health implications with respect to protecting fragile marine ecosystems.

On a global level, this work aligns with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which emphasize the importance of understanding ocean health and its role in supporting human health. As recognized by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG #17, Life Below Water), marine sanctuaries represent a vast oceanic resource and provide myriad ecosystem services that are important for human health. These services include the potential for harboring secondary metabolites for natural products and drug discovery and supporting mental health. Collectively, this research underscores the importance of raising awareness about the life-supporting functions of water resources and the importance of engaging citizen scientists, students, health professionals, and transdisciplinary stakeholders in the stewardship of these resources. To advance this next step, blue space will be featured in a new Project ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes) tele-mentoring series that will be launched later this year with partners including the UNH Institute for Health Policy and Practice, the School of Marine Science and Ocean Engineering, and New Hampshire Healthcare Workers for Climate Action, funded with generous support from The Nature Conservancy.
These efforts will help to promote a culture of collaboration, interprofessional education, and sustainable use of natural resources to support physical and mental health.

Citation: Bruce, S.A., Aytur, S.A., Andam, C.P. , Bucci, J.P. Metagenomics to characterize sediment microbial biodiversity associated with fishing exposure within the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Nature Scientific Reports 12, 9499 (2022).