Marine Biotechnology: An Ocean of Answers

The ocean contains a vast and significantly unexplored diversity of life and therefore represents a vast untapped resource that has the potential to be utilised in a variety of fields. Marine biotechnology is defined as the application of scientific and engineering principles to the processing of materials obtained from marine biological agents, to provide goods and services. Simply put, this field of research strives towards finding new genes, organisms, biosensors, natural products, and biochemical processes of importance to industry, nutrition, medicine and the environment.


Biotechnology in Human Health

The utilisation of biotechnology in the field of medicine and pharmaceuticals has proven successful due to the high diversity exhibited by marine organisms, as opposed to those on land. The realisation that marine organisms could provide bioactive compounds to be used in pharmaceuticals occurred in the early 20th century, when research began into the chemical defensive mechanisms of marine organisms. In 1950, Ross Nigrelli extracted a toxin from cuvierian organs of the Bahamian sea cucumber, Actynopyga agassizi, which he named ‘holothurin’. Holuthurin showed to exhibit some anti-tumour activity in mice. This discovery brought about increased research into the potential pharmaceutical properties of compounds derived from marine organisms, with the number of potential compounds isolated in modern times exceeding 10,000, with hundreds of new compounds being discovered every year.

Marine microorganisms represent 98% of the worlds biomass and possess immense genetic biochemical diversity. Numerous compounds have been isolated from the secondary metabolites of marine microorganisms which have yielded a variety of pharmaceutical products such as novel anti-inflammatory agents (e.g. pseudopterosins, topsentins) anti-cancer agents (e.g. bryostatins, eleutherobin and sarcodictyin) and antibiotics (e.g. marinone). In addition to microorganisms, invertebrates including sponges, molluscs, tunicates and bryozoans have yielded compounds now used in medicine, including cytostatic cytarabine (an anti-cancer agent) isolated from a species of sponge and analgesic ziconotide (a pain relief drug) derived from the toxin of cone snails (Conus magus). Advancement in research into marine derived pharmaceuticals (especially marine microorganism) is limited often due to inability to chemically synthesise the compounds found, as well and the complicated nature of attempting to harvest the organism from its natural environment. Research into the potential of marine organism derived compounds to be used in pharmaceuticals is ongoing, and increasing developments in technology will undoubtedly fuel this research.

Conus magus - Ziconotide is a chemical derived from the this species' toxin that acts as a painkiller with a potency 1000 times that of morphine.

Ziconotide, derived from Conus magus, acts as a painkiller with a potency 1000 times that of morphine.

Biotechnology in Environment and Aquaculture

Biotechnological research to improve aquaculture is focused on species diversification, optimum food and feeding, health of cultured organisms and disease resistance, as well as minimalising  environmental impact. Research into GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) has been escalating significantly in recent years as technology develops. The term refers to organisms that have had specific changes introduced into their DNA using the methods of genetic engineering and is primarily used in the industry of agriculture. However, efforts are currently being made to develop genetically modified species of salmon with particularly useful features, such as fast growth, resistance to pathogens, temperature and salinity, that could prove to have significant economic benefits to the aquaculture industry.

As well as the prospect of genetically modified organisms for use in aquaculture, biotechnological research into marine microorganisms for use as probiotics in aquaculture has also been successful. Marine microorganisms currently used in aquaculture include Bacillus sp., Lactobacillussp., Enterococcus sp., Carnobacterium sp and have shown to possess the ability to inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria. For example, Bacillus spp. Possess the ability to decrease the proportion of the harmful Vibrio spp in shrimp ponds. Further studies have shown how marine microogranisms can stimulate appetite, improve absorption of nutrients, and strengthen the host fishes immune system, all of which prove beneficial in aquaculture.

Marine organisms have also shown the potential to act as biosensors, with a range of bioluminescent proteins from marine organisms currently being studied in order to produce gene probes that can be employed to detect human pathogens in food or fish. The implementation of marine organisms into bacterial growth inhibition has also been extensively researched, with the potential to be used as environmentally friendly antifoulants. For example, research into the benthic marine algae Delisea pulchra showed that the production of furanones in the algae inhibited the transcription of quorum sensing regulatory genes in species of marine bacteria. These genes are crucial in the microogranisms surface transolocation, and subsequently they can not accumulate on the surface of the algae. This property of D.pulchra is currently being studied in the potential use in surface antifouling treatments that unlike past, man-made antifoulants, could be environmentally friendly.

Baby delisea in petri dish inhibiting mixed biofilm by exuding furanones - Photograhpher: Peter Steinberg

Baby delisea in petri dish inhibiting mixed biofilm by exuding furanones – Photograhpher: Peter Steinberg

Biotechnology in Industry

The ability of marine organisms to synthesise such a variety of bioactive compounds has also proved beneficial in industrial processes. Seaweeds are known to be an abundant source of polysaccharides and have extensive commercial uses. Carrageenan, a family of linear sulphated polysaccharides are extracted from various species of red algae (e.g. Chondrus crispus) and are widely used for their gelling, thickening and stabilising properties in the food industry. They are used primarily in dairy and meat products due to the polysaccharides strong binding ability to food proteins. Algarose is a material generally extracted from seaweed that has been utilised as a principle component in Agar, used for lab work in the biological sciences, most significantly during electrophoresis tests. With developing technology allowing for the extraction of marine organisms from the ocean floor, increasing amounts of research are being conducted into the potential utilisation compounds derived from extremophiles.

Extremophiles, including psychrophiles and thermophiles have developed uniquely adapted enzymes (and other proteins), with extra stable chemical bonds to help these organisms to survive in such harsh conditions. For instance, thermostable polymerase, such as ‘Taq’ was isolated from the thermophilic marine bacterium Thermus aquaticus. ‘Vent’ another thermostable polymerase has subsequently been isolated from the thermophilic bacterium Thermococcus litoralis, and is viewed as an alternative to ‘Taq’, both of which are commercially available enzymes used in molecular biology for the amplification of segments of DNA.

Thermus aquaticus was first discovered in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park

Thermus aquaticus was first discovered in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park

With the current increase in interest by biotechnology companies in isolating and characterising new enzymes, biopolymers and biomaterials, extracting such materials from marine sources are of particular interest as they are likely to possess novel characteristics e.g. increased salt tolerance, pressure tolerance, cold adaptivity, heat tolerance and may have novel physical, chemical/stereochemical properties. The marine realm has opened up a new and exciting vista for the exploration of life saving pharmaceuticals, environmental processes and novel industrial products, with the biotechnological potential of the untapped oceans being a very exciting prospect for future generations.

For more in-depth information regarding the future of marine biotechnology, see Marine Biotechnology: A New Vision and Strategy for Europe

– JK

 Photo Header Credit: Aquapreneur – Commercial innovation in marine biotechnology

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