Coral Reef Ecosystems and Human Health: Biodiversity Counts!


Address correspondence to: Walter H. Adey, Department of Botany, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; E-mail


ABSTRACT The health of human populations requires a wide variety of chemical and physical supports from their associated ecosystems, as well as from the global ecosystem. Ecosystems can be “ecologically engineered” to improve the efficiency of that service, particularly when ecosystem health fails due to human overloads. Less well recognized is an entirely different dimension of ecosystem support of human populations; namely the pharmacological value of ecosystem biodiversity. Natural product chemistries are an extremely important resource in the ever-expanding human battle with health degrading microbes.

Coral reefs are the most diverse ecosystems in the sea and have the highest density of biodiversity globally. High diversity density gives rise to intense species competition and the subsequent organism capability to construct exotic defensive and offensive chemicals, many with pharmacological value. Coral reefs are being rapidly degraded, anthropogenically, both locally and globally. It is estimated that less than 10% of reef biodiversity is currently known and only a small fraction of that percent has been tested for “active compounds”. Many species extinctions are likely in the coming decades, and badly needed pharmacological potential will subsequently be lost.

Sophisticated coral reef and reef organism culturing capability is now available that would allow the prospecting of reefs, the efficient analysis of organisms and eventually the mass culturing of those organisms for their secondary compounds without ecosystem damage. The economic value of this pharmaceutical potential needs to be directed by governments to an international crash project to conserve coral reefs and their biodiversity.