Marine microorganism data from anywhere in the world is now easier to access. The EU-funded project that made this possible also developed the research infrastructure and legal framework necessary for industry to fully tap the potential of microbial life in the oceans.
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The project, called MICRO B3, has created a global snapshot of marine microbes and developed new tools to help scientists better understand marine microbial diversity. These tools include computational simulations to help identify new active compounds, alternative techniques to sample DNA and an interactive map of marine microbes around the world.
Understanding marine microorganisms
The results could benefit the healthcare, cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries, which are just a few of the sectors eager to take advantage of value-added molecules derived from the sea. For example, the harsh marine environment could yield hardy ingredients capable of surviving extreme industrial processes.
While marine microorganisms such as bacteria are seen as an untapped resource of biotechnological potential, accessing these molecules had however proved until now to be costly and difficult.
“Despite the importance of these marine microbes, knowledge about their diversity and their potential usefulness to the biotech and pharmaceutical industries has been limited,” explains MICRO B3 project coordinator Frank Oliver Glöckner from Jacobs University Bremen, Germany.
“A key part of this project has been to mobilise the global marine research community in order to obtain ocean samples and share data. Our success in this respect has been largely due to the engagement of a network of over 150 marine sites, who all contributed their samples and expertise. The final conference in Brussels (in November 2015) targeted policy makers and industry leaders, in order to promote uptake of the novel technologies we’ve developed to access marine knowledge.”
Tapping the ocean’s wealth
Project partners were able to sequence DNA from a diverse range of these microbial samples, helping researchers to assess the diversity of marine microbial life and also identify promising enzymes for industrial use. New tools to integrate genomic, environmental and ecological data were used to make these selections more accurate, and to help scientists determine the potential functions of unknown genes found in marine microbes.
This information was then made available through various existing databases that the project linked together to facilitate information sharing. “Scientific cooperation will contribute towards better predicting, managing and mitigating future changes in the ocean,” says Glöckner. “In addition, diverse results from, say, genome mining for anti-tumour compounds are becoming available.”
Operating procedures and standards were also established. This will allow for marine data to be collected in an orchestrated way, consistent with national and international legal commitments. “These standards are expected to support marine microbial biotechnology for industrial applications in the near future,” says Glöckner.
Growing public awareness
In addition to better connecting marine researchers and boosting industrial potential, the MICRO B3 project has also sought to raise public awareness about the role that marine microbes play. A sampling kit for microbes and an accompanying smartphone app have been developed, and users can upload their data onto an interactive global map.
“We wanted to further the general understanding of the diverse roles of microbes in our changing oceans and create a new kind of communication culture in marine science, through the free exchange of data,” explains Glöckner. The MICRO B3 project was officially completed in December 2015.