These include acting as a buffer against climate change, helping store CO2 and keep it out of the atmosphere, and providing valuable molecules for the rapidly growing field of biotechnology, thus contributing to the production of new pharmaceuticals and other products. Not to mention the value of the sea as an important food source.
Marine species account for the vast majority of Earth’s biodiversity. However, this biodiversity is under potential threat. Overexploitation and climate change are having significant negative effects. The need to monitor marine ecosystems in order to detect these changes and enable timely remedial action has never been more critical than it is now. The European Union (EU)-funded MARBIGEN project was a key initiative in helping Europe take a leading role in this vital task by providing it with a world-leading specialist marine research centre, equipped with the most advanced scientific capabilities available.
At the heart of the MARBIGEN project was a daunting challenge and an exciting opportunity. The challenge was the sheer volume and diversity of marine ecosystems, much of it existing at microscopic scale. Gaining a deep and broad understanding of these ecosystems and their functioning is an almost unimaginably large task. The opportunity was presented by recent advances in the tools and techniques available to marine biologists. ‘Next Generation Sequencing’ (NGS) techniques make it possible to carry out genetic studies on a far bigger scale than ever before. At the same time, modern computers have started to allow the processing and analysing of vast amounts of biological data (a field known as ‘bioinformatics’) as well as the building of large scale models of entire ecosystems (computational biology).
The aim of MARBIGEN was to develop the research capabilities of the Institute of Marine Biology, Biotechnology and Aquaculture (IMBBC) of the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research on the island of Crete, and thereby enable it to take full advantage of the potential offered by these new techniques. With a widely recognised and impressive track record in marine biodiversity research, including a strong contribution to projects such as the ‘Marine Genomics Europe’ Network of Excellence initiative, IMBBC (formerly the Institute of Marine Biology and Genetics) was the ideal candidate for this investment. “Another important factor,” says Dr Antonis Magoulas, Director of IMBBC and MARBIGEN’s project coordinator, “was IMBBC’s location.” “The eastern Mediterranean, being a complex hotspot of climate and biodiversity change, constitutes a great model to understand ecosystem-level functioning and to monitor its changes by means of genomics,” says Dr Magoulas.
The initiative to place IMBBC firmly in the front line of global marine biodiversity research was achieved partly by upgrading existing equipment and acquiring the new equipment needed for the latest research techniques. “The significance of this,” explains Dr Magoulas, “cannot be under-estimated.” “Within a few years, these technologies have transformed biology into a major “big-data” science,” he says. This transformation has enabled important qualitative and quantitative leaps forward in the potential to assess ecosystem functioning and to develop marine biotechnology.
A parallel strand of the project focused on the human side - enhancing the scientific personnel at IMBBC through a combination of new hires and temporary exchanges of researchers with other centres of excellence.
As a result of MARBIGEN, IMBBC is now fully equipped to play a leading role in marine biodiversity research and conservation, using state-of-the-art genomics and bioinformatics technologies. “Thanks to MARBIGEN,” concludes Dr Magoulas, “IMBBC is able to offer the infrastructure and expertise required to address vitally important research needs related to marine biodiversity, genomics and ecosystems – things that play a crucial role in our human lives whether we realise it or not.”