Making sustainable use of Europe's marine wealth
Health-care products, cosmetics and infant formulas are just a few everyday products that use molecules derived from marine organisms. A ground-breaking EU project has discovered several new sources of these compounds and developed a new method of sustainably manufacturing them. The benefits for Europe, from major pharmaceuticals to regional development, could be immense.
Marine organisms – such as bacteria, fungi, sponges and algae – produce impressive yields of high-value-added molecules (HVABs) that are used as ingredients in various pharmaceutical, cosmetic and industrial sectors. Although the use of organisms in technological applications remains a somewhat untapped corner of the biotechnology market, research firm Global Industry Analysts predicts that the marine biotechnology sector is set to surpass €3.11 billion by 2015.
Farming these molecules in a sustainable and efficient manner could prove to be highly lucrative, and create innovative and environmentally friendly business opportunities. This would be especially welcome in isolated coastal regions, which is why the EU is part-funding the international BAMMBO project focusing on the sustainable production of biologically active molecules of marine-based origin.
The project is coordinated by Dr Daniel Walsh at the Limerick Institute of Technology in Ireland. Partners from Russia, Brazil and the European coasts of the Mediterranean, Adriatic and Atlantic are also involved.
Startling marine discoveries
“One very interesting finding has been made in the cold waters off Antarctica,” says Dr Walsh. “Yeast and fungi associated with sea stars and urchins have been cultured and isolated, and have demonstrated an ability to produce wood-digesting enzymes active at temperatures less than 15˚C. The potential of these enzymes as new agents for use in energy-saving detergents, environmental clean-up products and the biotechnology industries are immense.”
The three-year project, which kicked off in 2011, is currently screening target marine organisms from a variety of global locations in order to identify potential new sustainable sources of HVABs.
“To date, we have identified all known, targeted, commercially viable compounds in a range of marine organisms, and have also discovered eight novel and never seen before alkaloids from sponges,” continues Dr Walsh. “Our University of Nice partner is able to sustainably culture these sponges and ‘recover’ the target compounds from them and their surrounding environment, so we are not interfering with the host organism’s life.”
Extraction systems have been developed which will enable large-scale isolation and enrichment of high-value-added biomolecules with minimal to no use of organic solvents, which can damage the environment.
The project team has also identified extracts from macro-algae (seaweed) rich in antioxidants. These are currently progressing through the enrichment, purification and characterisation stages of the BAMMBO work programme. Antioxidant activity compares favourably to that of the commercially used compound butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), which is widely used in sectors such as the automotive industry to treat oxidation (or rust), but is a potential health risk. “The stability and toxicity of the naturally occurring antioxidants will be evaluated as the project progresses,” says Dr Walsh.
Other seaweed extracts with potent anti-fungal activities have been identified, which could one day be used as intravenous anti-fungal agents to treat infections. In the future, some macro-algal strains could also replace current ‘chemo’ drugs used to treat various cancers, including sarcomas, carcinomas and lymphomas.
Achieving sustainable production
In addition to making novel discoveries, the project has focused on achieving a more sustainable and efficient method of producing HVABs. A novel photo-bioreactor system (an enclosed culture tank designed for controlled biomass production) has been developed. The bioreactor has been calibrated so that the conditions inside can be adjusted.
“This system, developed together with our SME partners’ knowledge, will help us to make better use of micro-algae as a cost-effective source of bio-molecules,” says Dr Walsh. “One of the most important things we’re doing here is working with our SME partners to develop and transfer skills to local and regional industry. Europe is being challenged by outside production, so we need to ask ourselves how we can better utilise the marine environment, away from the sea.”
Through the development of technologies and new discoveries, the ground-breaking BAMMBO project hopes to provide a solid answer to this question, and meet the objectives of the EU’s Horizon 2020 Framework Programme of creating growth and jobs through research.