CORVALLIS - Researchers at Oregon State University have joined forces with other universities and agencies in a new three-year, $18 million "Oceans and Human Health Initiative."

This program has been established by Congress and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to create three regional research centers that will analyze ways in which human activities can have an impact on ocean ecosystems, and how those systems, in turn, can affect human health.

Philippe Rossignol, an OSU professor of fisheries and wildlife, will lead OSU's participation in this initiative, which will be coordinated through the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, Wash. That regional center will focus its efforts on infectious diseases, biotoxins, and chemicals that can directly affect human health through consumption of seafood.

"There are a range of concerns we have about toxins, parasitic microorganisms and other health issues that can arise from eating seafood, and it appears that these risks are expanding," Rossignol said. "The presence of PCBs in salmon, for instance, are a serious concern, and the EPA recently noted that about one-third of the freshwater lakes in the nation have unhealthy levels of mercury contamination.

"This is an innovative new program that is targeting the study of some fisheries scientists to human health problems," he said. "We're going to get a lot of experts from different institutions involved and see what we can learn in this area."

Other participants in the Seattle-based center include the University of Washington, the Marine Mammal Center, Washington State University, Institute for Systems Biology, University of California at Davis, and Alaska Fisheries Science Center. This group will examine the risks and benefits of eating different seafood products, try to understand how key "stressors" affect human health, and improve the forecasting and mitigation of threats to human health from contaminated seafood.

Elsewhere in the nation, similar centers of study will be set up at the Hollings Marine Laboratory in Charleston, S.C., and the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich.

"These centers will start an entirely new approach to ocean research," said U.S. Sen. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, when the program was recently announced. "The oceans have a major impact on our daily health and we need to learn a great deal more about what ocean pollution is doing to both marine creatures and our food supply. I'm also convinced that we haven't even begun to know the good that can come from our oceans."

Funding from the program will go to external grants, a distinguished scholars and traineeship program, internal research, and education and outreach.

According to Rossignol, OSU's participation may expand in the future as more projects are developed. Initially, it was spawned by a recent study done by OSU and NOAA scientists that explored the complex way in which toxins or other disturbances in an ecosystem can be manifested in ways that are not apparent or easily observed.

"As a model system, we looked at the way in which salmon, parasites, predators and toxins interact in a natural marine ecosystem," Rossignol said. "A toxic disturbance may increase the death rate of one or more species, but that effect is not immediately obvious because some species can compensate for the toxic impact and mask the real, underlying affect."

The researchers developed a "theory of hot subsystems," or ways to better predict which components of larger ecosystems most accurately reflect the damages that are being done, and which approaches could best predict such things as human health impacts.

Collaboration is expected among the new centers being developed to study these issues, officials said. Scientists will also work with new research centers in related areas set up by the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

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Philippe Rossignol, 541-737-5509