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2013年2月 7日 (木)


--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 5
EDITORIAL: Japan surrounded by an exciting new field of research

The seabed has tectonic plates that can cause devastating earthquakes, but it is also a treasure trove of natural resources. New discoveries concerning the seabed were made after the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011. Japan, a scientific and technological powerhouse surrounded by the sea, should more aggressively research and develop the seabed.

Japan is small, but it is surrounded by territorial sea and an exclusive economic zone that add up to about 4.47 million square kilometers--the sixth-largest in the world. Since some of these waters are quite deep, Japan ranks fourth in the world in terms of the volume of water that surrounds it.

Japan now has the means to explore these deep waters.

The Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology's manned research submersible Shinkai 6500 and the drilling vessel Chikyu are finding new things about the seabed. In the supplementary budget for fiscal 2012 that ends in March 2013, the government has earmarked 11.4 billion yen (about $122 million) for the construction of vessels that can look for natural resources in wide seabed areas.

With both the sea and vessels available for research, there is no reason not to take advantage of both.

Marine life is the focus of special attention. Because of the absence of light and the extreme scarcity of nutrients in the sea bottom, conventional wisdom held that few creatures could survive in such an environment.

But 15 years ago, the unmanned submersible Kaiko, which can dive about 11,000 meters deep, discovered a large number of shrimp in the Mariana Trench, south of Japan, the deepest part of the world's oceans. These crustaceans have an enzyme that efficiently changes cellulose, a plant fiber, to glucose. The application of this enzyme could lead to the production of biofuels and food.

Some of the deep sea creatures that survive in severe environments, such as mud volcanoes that erupted in the sea due to earthquakes, are resistant to high heat or carry toxins in their bodies. Their genes could become valuable resources.

The Great East Japan Earthquake resulted in mass breeding of microorganisms in the hypocentral region. This is believed to have been caused by the generation of methane, which occurred when huge volumes of hydrogen were released from cracked rocks. The methane probably "woke up" the microorganisms, which until then must have been in long "hibernation" for lack of nutrients.

We may learn something about the history of our planet from microorganisms that lurk deep down on the ocean floor and have extremely slow-paced lives.

The United States and Europe are paying more attention to the new field of geomicrobiology, which comprehensively covers rocks and marine life. In addition to being a scientifically fascinating field, it could lead to the use of them as resources.

We encourage Japan's young scientists to transcend their narrowly defined disciplines and challenge this highly promising field. It is a bit disappointing for Japan that overseas researchers were the first to show interest in genetic analysis of microorganisms living in the seabed.

Japan needs to develop a system that encourages and values researchers who take on such new challenges. Universities and other institutions should collaborate actively not only in research but also in developing young talent.

As a maritime nation, Japan's ideal attitude would be to aim for a brighter future through marine research and development.


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« F35部品輸出 3原則の例外扱いは妥当だ | トップページ | レーダー照射 中国軍は危険な挑発を慎め »