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Medicine from the ocean

November 27, 2015
You cannot see, feel, or smell them, yet there are millions of them in every drop of seawater. A project financed by the EU is dedicated to researching the diversity of microorganisms as well as their suitability for the acquisition of new active ingredients and substances.
Microorganisms are a key component in the marine food chain. They break down dead biological material and feed it back into the nutrient cycle. They produce biomass and oxygen and they break down carbon dioxide. If the ocean is out of sync then that is partly because its smallest inhabitants have been compromised. Scientists and citizens worldwide took water samples on June 21, 2014 and 2015 and evaluated them; first findings are now available. ‘Ocean Sampling Day’ was a key component of the ‘Micro B3’ (microbial diversity, bio-information and biotechnology) project funded by the EU. It produced a unique, global snapshot of microbiological diversity. A team around project coordinator Professor Frank Oliver Glöckner from Jacobs University and the Max Planck Institute of Marine Microbiology in Bremen played a major role in the project. Scientists are especially interested in mankind’s impact on microorganisms, as well as the way they develop resistance to the kind of antibiotics that find their way into the sea from agriculture. And the commercial utility of microorganisms is another topic that interests the 32 partners from 14 European nations who are involved.
Microorganisms carry genetic information which can be used for industrial purposes. “The sea is the world’s biggest ecosystem,” says Professor Glöckner. “From the surface of the ocean all the way to its deepest depths it shelters a vast array of life-forms, some of them quite bizarre, which have adapted to a wide variety of habitats. We only know about a fraction of the genetic material that exists there.” At least two other patents have emerged from Micro B3. One of them involves an enzyme which can reduce phosphate emissions in animal husbandry. Secondly there is a new antibiotic which has been designed for use in fish farming and which may also be suitable for medical applications.