Magazine article Science News

A Whale's Tale: Puzzling Marine Compounds Are Natural

Magazine article Science News

A Whale's Tale: Puzzling Marine Compounds Are Natural

Article excerpt

An 85-year-old vial of oil from a whaling ship has revealed that a mysterious group of organic chemicals resembling human-made compounds are naturally produced in the sea.

A decade ago, scientists monitoring marine mammals' flesh for pollutants began finding unknown organic compounds containing the halogen atoms bromine and chlorine. More than 20 such compounds were eventually revealed. That raised alarms because the compounds, as complex halogenated chemicals, structurally resemble the pesticide DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which were once used in flame retardants.

Manufacture of those and similar chemicals began in the 1930s. But their production and use were banned in most countries decades ago, after they were found to be deadly pollutants. Because halogenated compounds break down extremely slowly, they persist in soil and water and accumulate in animal flesh.

Researchers wondered whether the recently discovered organic chemicals were manufactured or produced naturally. Symbiotic bacteria in ocean sponges, for example, produce chemicals similar to DDT and PCBs that deter fungal growth.

To investigate, Emma L. Teuten of the University of Plymouth in England and Christopher M. Reddy of the Woods Hole (Mass.) Oceanographic Institution analyzed a whale-oil sample from 1921, before industry produced the first halogenated chemicals.

Their sample came from ajar of the translucent, yellow, odorless oil found on the Charles W. Morgan, one of the last whaling ships in operation. …

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