Scientists start to tap marine microbes for biotech use
[PARIS] The hot, brackish waters of French Polynesia’s lagoons in the Pacific could harbour microbes with huge commercial potential, including for drug creation or to produce alternatives to plastics, say researchers.
The extreme conditions found in some Polynesian aquatic ecosystems, which are often characterized by high temperatures and salinity, mean that unique marine bacteria have evolved there. These organisms produce compounds with possible applications in innovative pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.
But the field remains under-researched, according to Polynesianbiochemist Bernard Costa, who says that just three per cent of the world’s marine bacteria have been identified.
Costa co-established what he says is French Polynesia’s first biotechnology company, Pacific Biotech, in 2006 to develop applications from the archipelago’s marine bacteria.
The company is hunting for useful marine bacteria alongside French research bodies the Institute of Research for Development, the French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea and the National Centre for Scientific Research.
Their research focuses on exploring French Polynesia’s unique marine ecosystems, such as the kopara — lagoons with bright orange 'microbial mats' sitting on the water that develop in response to high salinity and the Sun’s intense radiation.
"The microorganisms develop internal defence systems that allow them to respond to extreme conditions, often producing unique molecules that promote the development of life in these conditions," says Costa.
For example, Pacific Biotech has discovered a bacterium called Paracoccus zeaxanthinifacienspayriae that produces exopolysaccharide molecules with commercial potential as moisturizers and antioxidants.
It has also identified thePseudomonas guezennei bacterium, which secretes a form of natural polyester called polyhydroxyalkanoate that could form the basis of a biodegradable packaging material.
"It’s a compelling alternative to the production of plastic," says Costa, as it would not be made from crude oil but from a renewable source.
The molecules could be made commercially with an industrial fermentation process, such as that used to produce beer, according to Costa.
Bacteria are already used as the sources of compounds in commercial products ranging from drugs to washing powder, but it is only recently that researchers have begun bioprospecting for new marine bacteria, says Lone Gram, a biotechnology researcher at the Technical University of Denmark.
Unique marine organisms
"The ocean is loaded with organisms that are unique to the marine environment," Gram says. Because conditions in the oceans and land are totally different, many scientists think that marine organisms are likely to produce bioactive molecules that are distinct from the ones we know from land-based organisms, he adds.
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Microbe image via Shutterstock.