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Published in: Biological Bulletin, no. 213, 2007.


Marine natural products play critical roles in the chemical defense of many marine organisms and in some cases can influence the community structure of entire ecosystems. Although many marine natural products have been studied for biomedical activity, yielding important information about their biochemical effects and mechanisms of action, much less is known about ecological functions. The way in which marine consumers perceive chemical defenses can influence their health and survival and determine whether some natural products persist through a food chain. This article focuses on selected marine natural products, including okadaic acid, brevetoxins, lyngbyatoxin A, caulerpenyne, bryostatins, and isocyano terpenes, and examines their biosynthesis (sometimes by symbiotic microorganisms), mechanisms of action, and biological and ecological activity. We selected these compounds because their impacts on marine organisms and communities are some of the best-studied among marine natural products. We discuss the effects of these compounds on consumer behavior and physiology, with an emphasis on neuroecology. In addition to mediating a variety of trophic interactions, these compounds may be responsible for community-scale ecological impacts of chemically defended organisms, such as shifts in benthic and pelagic community composition. Our examples include harmful algal blooms; the invasion of the Mediterranean by Caulerpa taxifolia; overgrowth of coral reefs by chemically rich macroalgae and cyanobacteria; and invertebrate chemical defenses, including the role of microbial symbionts in compound production.