Nature's storehouse of ideas

Jessica conducting a lab assay to investigate the affinity that emperor penguin hemoglobin has for oxygen. Photographer - Cory Champagne.
Inside this section
• Storehouse of solutions
• Benefits for humans
• Future surprises

New scientific knowledge about specific living things can benefit both the elephant seals and people.

Each living species is nature's storehouse of time-tested solutions for survival on a dynamic Earth. Dread sunburn? How do flimsy plants stand in the sun day-after-day without getting burnt? Predators trying to snack on you? Maybe a little poison from a coral might discourage them.

Whatever the challenge, pesky competitors, less than ideal environments or accidents, the bodies and behaviors of living things present a slew of solutions that have been adapted by humans to solve their problems.

Benefits for humans

Title - Trueseal or sealion

From the secrets of elephant seals - We've already borrowed solutions from aquatic animals - in the design of flippers and speed-enhancing swimsuits, and adjusting our behavior to advantage, like expelling air before diving or making decompression stops to avoid decompression sickness.

Now we're looking at an even more dazzling array of strategies hidden within their bodies, in cells and at the molecular level.

At that level, humans have a problem with oxygen. We desperately need it, but under some circumstances it can also kill us.

New approaches

• Newsweek: To Treat the Dead

Heart attack and stroke deprive key organs of oxygen supply causing serious and life-threatening problems. However, oxygen deprivation causes slower cell damage than we thought, while reperfusion injury, tissue damage caused by oxygen free radicals when blood flow resumes to an organ which has been deprived of blood, causes rapid cell death.

The oxygen supply of an elephant seal is nearly completely depleted in the blood during the dive, with apparently no tissue damage when blood flow resumes to organs that may have been oxygen deprived. Jessica Meir and Paul Ponganis are looking there for answers. Knowing how this happens has implications for better methods of harvesting and preservation of organs for transplant, and treatment of heart attack and stroke victims. These animals somehow withstand seriously low levels of oxygen in the blood and tissues that are catastrophic to humans.

What's next?

Juvenile northern elephant seals at Año Nuevo, California. Photographer - Jessica Meir.

Knowledge gained by research provides us with unexpected benefits. New knowledge often leads to advances in seemingly unrelated fields. Science is full of good examples.

What makes a good scientist under those circumstances? Expertise in a particular field and the ability and desire to communicate with people who are experts in very different subjects. Who would have thought heart attacks and elephant seals go together?

Research serves the dual purposes of conserving the biodiversity of our planet and maintaining the ability of our planet to sustain our own lives. Until recently, we didn't know where elephant seals spent most of their lives. Without knowing that, we wouldn't know when they might be in harm's way. If they had been lost to extinction yesterday, they could not have inspired our thinking today.