Marine biotechnology applies biotechnological methods to create products and processes from marine organisms. Due to the presence of a wide range of varying environmental conditions such as temperature, pressure, salinity, chemicals, etc., in the oceans, they host a vast diversity of marine organisms. These marine organisms are capable of producing unique biological compounds. We use the compounds obtained from marine organisms in various products, such as the development of new drugs, enzymes, chemicals, etc. We also use marine biotechnology to develop improved aquaculture methods food safety, and produce biofuels.
Below are some of the common marine organisms and the products obtained from them through biotechnology:
Fungi (Cephalosporium) – Antibiotic
Marine sponge (Halichondria okadai) – Anticancer
Cone snail (Conus magus) – Anaesthetic
Caribbean sponge (Tethya crypta) – Antiviral
Spiny dogfish (Squalus acanthus) – Antibiotic
These are just some among a number of many marine organisms used in biotechnology. Reports say that researchers and scientists discover around 1,000 new marine compounds each year.
We have overexploited marine resources to satisfy our food requirements, especially fish. WWF released a report saying that wild fish numbers rapidly decrease, and humans have exploited 53% of fisheries worldwide. By the year 2050, all wild fish species could go extinct. Aquaculture provides us a way of meeting our seafood demands while also ensuring that the wild fish populations are at a healthy number. In short, aquaculture means fish farming. There are four common methods of farming that fish farmers employ. They are:
1. The Pond System
A pond system is the oldest type of farming method. It originated thousands of years ago. Here, farmers breed fish in ponds, ditches, or canals. Compared to the rest of the methods, a pond system is the simplest way of fish farming. Its location inland makes it easy to divert waste away from the pond and into separate pools. The wastes make excellent fertilizers.
2. Open Net Pens
In this method, fish are farmed in a net sort of structure made from metal, wood, or bamboo with a mesh enclosure. The enclosure floats on the surface of the water. An anchor keeps the system in place. Alternatively, the enclosure is also sometimes tied to a secure structure nearby. The mesh structure ensures that water is constantly flowing through the enclosure. The constant flow of water helps farmers effectively deal with waste.
3. Submersible Net Pens
These are similar to open-net pens, the only difference being that they are underwater rather than floating on the top. They resemble a large, closed cage.
4. Recirculation Systems
The recirculating system is like a sophisticated pond system. Here, there are tanks interconnect in a series. Fish farmers control the water flow in the tanks by an external system designed for the purpose. The recirculation system is operated indoors. Pipes carry clean water into the tanks and wastewater out. The wastewater is treated, purified, and then sent back into the tanks. Therefore, this system is the one with the least environmental risk.
Marine Microbes of Biotechnological Importance
We find marine microbes (or microorganisms) in a variety of underwater conditions ranging from surface waters and offshore environments to the abyssal plains and hot thermal vents. The oceans are extremely rich in microbes. There are around 1,00,000 marine cells in just one ml of ocean water. You can imagine how many there would be in the entire ocean! The most dominant forms of marine microbes are bacteria and fungi. (Let’s do a quick biology revision. Bacteria are organisms containing one single cell. Fungi can be of a single cell or multiple cells. Bacteria need a host to survive while fungi can survive well on their own.)
Below are some common marine microbes and the compounds extracted from them:
Marinomonas mediterranea (Bacteria) – Used as an antibacterial
Yarrowia lipolytica (Fungi) – Used to bioremediate oil spills
Alcanivorax borkumensis (Bacteria) – Used to bioremediate oil spills
Pseudomonas aestusnigri (Bacteria) – Used to bopremediate oil spills
Cephalosporium (Fungi) – Used as an antibacterial
Actinomycetales (Bacteria) – Used to treat cancer
Role of Marine Microbes in Global Carbon Cycling
Marine microbes play a crucial role in sequestering carbon dioxide. Microbes comprise around 98% of the number of organisms living in the ocean. They perform almost half of all photosynthesis on Earth. They sequester enormous amounts of carbon dioxide in the world’s oceans. This sequestration of carbon dioxide is vital in regulating the climate.
Microbes are tiny organisms; around 100 of them could fit in the width of your hair. Though small, the health of the whole ocean, and consequently our Earth, depends on them. The storage of carbon dioxide by microbes is called the Microbial Carbon Pump (MCP). The MCP stores dissolved organic carbon in deep ocean water. Dissolved organic carbon cannot biologically degrade further; thus, we can store this carbon in oceans for millennia.
Genomics of Marine Organisms
The genomics of marine organisms, or the ocean genome, is a collection of all genetic material present in all marine organisms. The ocean genome includes the physical genes of marine organisms. The ocean genome is responsible, among other things, for the productivity of organisms and their ability to adapt to a changing environment. These factors play important roles in sustaining the ocean economy and global food security.
33 out of the 34 major known phyla are found in the ocean. This should give you an idea of how amazing and extraordinarily diverse our oceans really are.
The genomes of organisms contain their biological, behavioral, and morphological information. They help marine organisms establish their roles within a marine ecosystem. Genetic diversity in the ocean is essential for recycling carbon, regulating climate, providing food, directing energy across food webs, maintaining the quality of water, etc. They ensure that even if an event led to the loss of some species, the ecosystem as a whole would still remain stable and functional. Genetic diversity gives marine ecosystems and organisms a greater resilience to a rapidly changing climate.
Recent Progress in Discovery of Drugs and Enzymes from Marine Sources
Our rapidly changing environment has brought with it the emergence of new diseases. A steep rise in population greatly burdens our existing resources of drugs. Therefore, scientists are always on the lookout for new sources of medicines to meet people’s demands. Today, we look at the marine environment as an extremely diverse resource for developing new drugs. Aquatic life forms such as sponges, mollusks, seaweeds, microbes, etc., are some that researchers use in clinical trials.
Recently, scientists isolated the compounds of microalgae. They found that these contain biological activities that are anti-cancer, anti-leprosy, and anti-inflammatory. Drug manufacturers have registered many patents for the extraction of chemicals from microalgae. Aplysina aerophobia, a marine sponge, has recently been in clinical trials for cancer treatment. Researchers have observed that chemicals extracted from the sponge fight against the walls of tumors. It also has the potential to inhibit the growth of tumors.
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