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Releasing the Untapped Biotech Potential of the Sea

02 December 2013

EU - While marine microorganisms have long been identified as an untapped resource of biotechnological potential, their exploitation has been hampered by the difficulty and expense of isolating their valuable novel chemicals and molecules. As a result, the vast majority of marine microorganisms have until now not been properly cultivated.

This is a wasted opportunity, and is something that the EU-funded Marine Microorganisms: Cultivation Methods for improving their Biotechnological Applications (MaCuMBA) project aims to rectify. Launched in August 2012, this four-year initiative will improve the isolation rate of marine microorganisms by using innovative new methods.

These methods include the co-cultivation of interdependent microorganisms that mimic the natural environment. Signalling molecules produced by microorganisms will help to stimulate growth of the same or other species. In fact, these signalling molecules represent an interesting and potentially marketable product in themselves.

The project consortium took opportunity to take stock of the progress made so far during its first General Assembly, held in Rostock, France in September.

"The work carried out by the MaCuMBA project will increase the time and effort invested in getting new microbes in pure culture," says Professor Francisco Rodriguez-Valera, leader of MaCuMBA's Work Package 6 on sequencing, genomic and metagenomic libraries and meta genome analyses.

"This kind of research is restricted by the high risk that it implies, in spite of the high gain that it provides once significant new microbes are obtained as pure cultures, so projects such as MaCuMBA are important."

Work Package 6 uses genomics and meta-genomics in order to obtain pure cultures of individual marine microbes and to increase our understanding of their biology. "Sequencing nucleic acids is the fastest and highest yield method presently available for acquiring information about microbes," says Professor Rodriguez-Valera. "We will use these technologies to advance our knowledge of the main microbial characters that play a role in the functions of the ocean ecosystem. Learning how to use these organisms will help us to improve the sustainability of both the ocean ecosystem and the European economy through biotechnological processes."

In sum, the project will increase the success rate in isolating marine microbes and numerous novel marine bacteria, improve cultivation efficiency of biotechnological relevant marine microorganisms and increase the production rate of new biomolecules with high added value. MaCuMBA also aims to develop culturing methods that mimic natural conditions and advance our understanding of how cell-to-cell communication could affect the isolation and cultivation efficiency of marine microorganisms.

The MaCuMBA project is being led by the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ), and is a joint venture of 23 partner institutions from 11 EU countries. All partners share the common aim of uncovering the untold diversity of marine microbes using cultivation-dependent strategies.

The project is scheduled to run until July 2016.

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