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Marine Biotechnology: A NURP Priority
Benthic invertebrates, like these Pacific soft corals, have been a rich source of biotechnology products
Benthic invertebrates, like these Pacific soft corals, have been a rich source of biotechnology products.

Biotechnology is defined as the industrial use of living organisms or biological techniques developed through basic research; marine biotechnology is an emerging discipline based on the use of marine natural resources. The oceans encompass about 71% of the surface of our planet, but over 99% of the biosphere (since organisms are found throughout the water column), and they represent the greatest extremes of temperature, light, and pressure encountered by life. Adaptation to these harsh environments has led to a rich marine bio- and genetic-diversity with potential biotechnological applications related to drug discovery, environmental remediation, increasing seafood supply and safety, and developing new resources and industrial processes.

Drug Discovery and Marine-derived Compounds
Fluorescence in Bahamian brain coral may provide novel biotech light sources
Fluorescence in Bahamian brain coral may provide novel biotech light sources.
Drug discovery represents one of the most promising and highly visible outcomes of marine biotechnology research. Biochemicals produced by marine invertebrates, algae and bacteria, are very different than those from related terrestrial organisms and thus offer great potential as new classes of medicines. To date, examples of marine-derived drugs include an antibiotic from a fungi, two closely related compounds from a sponge that treat cancer and the herpes virus, and a neurotoxin from a snail that has painkiller properties making it 10,000 times more potent than morphine ithout the side effects. However, there are several more marine-derived compounds currently in clinical trials and it is likely that many more will advance to the clinic as more scientists look to the sea for these biotechnological uses. In addition to new medicines, other uses for marine-derived compounds include: cosmetics (algae, crustacean and sea fan compounds), nutritional supplements (algae and fish compounds), artificial bone (corals), and industrial applications (fluorescent compounds from jellyfish, novel glues from mussels, and heat resistant enzymes from deep-sea bacteria).

Marine Biotechnology and Environmental Conservation
Coral diseases, such as Black Band Disease, might be eradicated using new biotechnologies
Coral diseases, such as Black Band Disease, might be eradicated using new biotechnologies.

Biotechnology also holds the promise of increasing food supplies from the ocean; this is critical as overfishing and increased demand have taxed the limits of marine sustainable stocks. Aquaculture techniques have been enhanced by the discovery of natural inducers for spawning and larval settlement, as well as remediation of disease within culture facilities. Molecular genetic studies have also been applied to fisheries to identify natural populations and mixed stock interactions, and to estimate stocking efficiencies with pedigree. More recently, biotechnology has been used to assess seafood safety through the development of novel test kits that react to the presence of human pathogens in the food. These "biosensor" techniques are currently being employed as early warning systems for environmental health. For example, harmful algal blooms and/or anthropogenic toxins have the potential to cause great harm to marine habitats. Unique biosensors are being developed to inform scientists of increasing levels of specific biomarkers. Moreover, specific marine bacteria have been developed that can aid in the clean-up effort if a toxic spill should occur; thus biotechnology not only helps society, but it helps the environment as well. OBCR scientists are also applying their research techniques to NOAA NURP priorities of coral disease management and marine environmental health.

The Ocean Biotechnology Center and Repository
NOAA NURP and its partner the National Institute of Undersea Science and Technology (NIUST) is committed to assessing the marine biotechnological potential of US coral reef organisms. NIUST was founded in 2001 to address NOAA NURP research priorities that transcend the regional boundaries of the NURC system. The Ocean Biotechnology Center and Repository (OBCR), a division within NIUST, is housed within the National Center for Natural Products Research located at the University of Mississippi (Oxford MS). In the last 3 years, OBCR has surveyed and sampled the marine resources of Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico, Guam, Saipan, and American Samoa. The repository currently contains over 2000 extracts which have been tested in-house for antibiotic, anticancer, and antimalarial activity. These extracts have also been forwarded to academic and industrial partners across the United States for additional screening. Over 10% of the repository samples have been flagged for follow-up research efforts (this compares favorably to the 0.5% "hit-rate" reported for terrestrial plants by the NCNPR). In addition, this research increases our understanding of novel marine organisms and habitats using new and novel technologies.

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Updated: April 1, 2005