From brine to blue growth, using marine biotechnology
Powerful compounds, intriguing properties, underused potential... marine resources such as algae are already powering innovation in areas as varied as fuel production, bioremediation and medicine, and the journey of discovery continues. An EU-funded project set out to accelerate the process and help advance Europe's bioeconomy.
© Gabriella Luongo, 2017
Once an innovation is available on the market, it is easy to forget that it may have taken quite a while to develop the initial idea or insight into a finished product. And, of course, many a promising lead remains unexploited.
The EU-funded EMBRIC project, which focuses on the potential of marine biotechnology, was set up to accelerate the scientific process by which fresh discoveries are made and harnessed for use in new products. It draws on the combined strengths of six European research networks, including four ESFRI Research Infrastructures, linking valuable resources and facilities in a bid to smooth the path for innovation. Along with these networks, the project involves three SMEs.
EMBRIC has set up dedicated discovery pipelines e.g. for work on microalgae, bacteria, or selective breeding in aquaculture and reached out to potential users in academia and industry to foster closer ties. It supports this community with services as varied as data consultancy, training and access to research expertise.
With the project due to end in May 2019, the emphasis lies on securing its legacy, says EMBRIC scientific and technical manager Amélie Lecornec of Sorbonne Université in Paris, France. The European Marine Biological Resource Centre (EMBRC) is preparing to take on a lead role in this respect, although the arrangements are yet to be finalised, she adds.
R&D inspired by the sea
One novel compound that is currently at an early discovery stage, for instance, is an anti-UV compound made from natural products in micro-algae, says Lecornec. It could be used to replace other chemicals, providing a healthier way to protect the skin.
As part of their bid to stimulate technology transfer in the field, the partners also looked into a variety of aspects relevant to the fragmented community EMBRIC was set up to support, such as the linkages between science and industry or between stakeholders in different regions.
This activity notably involved the adoption of principles with regard to preserving, accessing, exploring and sharing marine genetic resources. These principles have already been endorsed by EMBRC and by the European high-capacity screening network EU-Openscreen, a second participating infrastructure that is directly concerned, Lecornec reports.
More are likely to follow suit, she adds, underlining that the topic is not necessarily relevant to all. The other networks involved in EMBRIC respectively focus on European aquaculture (AQUAEXCEL), bioinformatics (ELIXIR), microbial resources (MIRRI), and research and innovation policy studies (RISIS).
The cooperation of these diverse, yet complementary partners in EMBRIC has also involved joint research activities. Advances from this collaboration include improved methods for research on bacteria for which current growth methods are not necessarily effective, standards for the measurement of genetic traits in shellfish, and the identification of micro-algal strains with anti-proliferative activity. The latter might be of interest in the treatment of certain tumours, Lecornec explains.
Another highlight of the cooperation in EMBRIC was a programme by which the consortium offered successful applicants free access to an array of laboratories and services. In total, 23 proposals benefited from this support, for research on topics such as the electrochemical detection of toxic algae, the fungal communities inhabiting marine plastic, and the cosmetic and pharmaceutical potential of marine dissolved organic matter.
EMBRC will in all likelihood continue the work we started, aggregating marine valorisation efforts in Europe, Lecornec notes, adding that part of this activity will have a regional focus. A number of maritime regions the Algarve, Brittany, Crete, Galicia and the Basque country are planning to launch a common initiative to develop a specialised strategy for the blue bioeconomy in their regions, she explains.