Future marine biotechnology research
Sustainable exploitation of the marine environment, and bio-prospecting
A major challenge in the field of marine biotechnology is to develop an efficient procedure for the discovery of novel biomolecules in the marine environment. The high level of biodiversity of marine organisms makes them a prime target for bio-prospecting: a wide range of novel biomolecules are produced by these organisms, ranging from bioactive molecules and enzymes of interest for medicine to biopolymers with diverse industrial applications. Microbes are particularly under-sampled and have great potential, since a recent survey of proteins in the ocean has found thousands of new families with unknown functions.
There already exist some elements which can help to efficiently exploit this resource. These include marine stations with extensive biological expertise and sample-collection facilities and companies with the facility to develop novel biomolecules for industrial applications. An effort is required to bridge the gap between these elements and their potential industrial partners.
Secondary metabolites, chemical biodiversity and biodiversity
Biochemical studies on marine organisms are very important, not only for the discovery of new drugs and biological tools, but also for better comprehension of ecosystems and, hence, better management of biodiversity. However, during the last twenty years, the study of the chemistry of natural products from biodiversity became dominated by the search for active molecules directed towards drug production. This has sometimes sidetracked the scientific investigation from solving crucial questions in areas such as:
- examination of the interactions between species
- chemical indications of environmental variation
- understanding biodiversity at the molecular scale
- comprehending the molecular reactivity and its impact on biological functions.
The challenge for the next ten years will be to explore how model organisms, including microbes, vary their production of metabolites in interaction with the environment and as a response to environmental changes (climate change, pollution, exceptional phenomena).
To achieve this goal, it will be necessary to study the role of the bioactive molecules within communities, their roles in competition for space and resources, and their role in defence against predators and pathogens. This will promote parallel studies in taxonomy, phylogeny, phylogeography and chemistry and clarify the link between biodiversity and chemodiversity.
In many areas of research, modelling is proving very effective, particularly with respect to slowly developing and predictable systems. However, in a period of rapid change such as we are experiencing, irregularities are extremely important. Ecosystems are non-linear and inherently unpredictable, and we must develop models that cope with episodic and irregular events and identify trends and depict scenarios. It should be emphasised, however, that empirical data and mechanistic understanding derived from experiments are essential to underpin models, particularly where regionally focused models are required.