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Feeding the seas

Science | Plans for ocean fertilization raise hopes and questions

Issue: "Not angry anymore," Dec. 1, 2007

The Ocean Nourishment Corporation wants to fertilize the sea. If it sounds ambitious, it is: The Australia-based company not only hopes to sequester 5 million tons of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, to the ocean floor each year, it claims it can simultaneously produce 50 grams of protein a day for 38 million people in the form of increased fish populations. And that's only from one of its proposed fertilization plants.

The ONC is one of a handful of companies hoping to jump-start the practice of ocean fertilization. The fertilization process works by adding certain nutrients that spur the growth and reproduction of phytoplankton, microscopic plants that form the bottom of the marine food chain. Because phytoplankton absorb CO2 from ocean water-which in turn absorbs the gas from the atmosphere-fertilizing the water would capitalize on a natural cycle to eventually send carbon to the ocean floor. In the process, millions of hungry fish would eat hearty. So goes the theory.

Not everyone is impressed. A meeting last month among members of the London Convention, an international treaty governing ocean pollution, agreed to a "Statement of Concern" over large-scale fertilization projects and urged member states to use "utmost caution" before approving any such schemes. Both the convention and environmental groups have suggested restrictions on mass fertilization, with fears it may disrupt marine ecosystems and produce long-term consequences not yet researched. Some also worry about profit motives on the part of companies like the ONC, which plans to sell carbon offsets to climate-conscious companies and individuals.

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Those concerns may need answers, but Murray Scott, a spokesman for the ONC, said the company's work is "still in the research phase." Its goals, he said, are to use its nourishment process to address at least two global issues: carbon emissions and undernourishment. "It's putting something back into the world in a controlled fashion." But few now know the consequences of such control.

Lab notes

FOOD: If you agree the world would be a worse place without chocolate, you can thank early Mesoamericans. Researchers studying ancient pottery from Honduras found chemical traces of cacao, the plant from which chocolate is derived, absorbed in the walls of vessels dated from 1100 to 800 b.c.-pushing back the presumed origin of chocolate some 500 years. Long before the Aztecs fermented and ground up cacao beans to make the frothy beverage the Spanish admired, Central American cultures were drinking a beer made from the pulp surrounding the bean. The researchers suggest that somewhere along the line, pulp brewers discovered the pleasures of the bean as an "accidental byproduct."

CLONING: It's believed to be a leap on the path to human cloning: For the first time, researchers have extracted stem cells from difficult-to-produce monkey clones. A team led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health & Science University used a modified nuclear transfer process to produce several dozen rhesus macaques, then derived two stem-cell lines. Although none of the embryos survived to be born after being implanted in surrogate female monkeys, the experiments reveal progress in the controversial fields of cloning and stem-cell research-areas many scientists are exploring in hope of developing cures for human illnesses. Mitalipov, whose next goal is to create monkey clones containing human disease genes, doesn't plan to attempt cloning humans, but hopes his techniques used on macaques will be useful to others working with human eggs.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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