Marine Biotechnology Opportunities for Latin America
The world's oceans comprise the biggest part of the biosphere and contain the most ancient and diverse forms of life. Only with the tools of modern science can these biological resources be studied in detail and thereafter be applied for human benefit and fundamental scientific progress.
Marine biotechnology has continued to develop in recent years as a field of application of modern science and engineering of critical importance to the understanding, protection and exploitation of the resources of the sea. It is recognized that the sea's resources remain largely unexplored and marine organisms represent a vast untapped resource with potential benefits in many different areas of life, including medicine, aquiculture and fisheries, industry, research tools and environmental applications; including new techniques to restore, protect and manage marine ecosystems. Marine organisms are also potential sources of discovery of new types of composite materials, biopolymers and enzymes for industry, biosensors, delivery systems and other economically valuable compounds.
The combined expertise of many fields from molecular biology to chemical and physical oceanography contribute to the development of the knowledge platform upon which marine biotechnology applications render goods and services for public benefit. The ever-expanding commercial biotechnology industry constantly seeks novel or improved sources of products. This industry now possesses the necessary infrastructure and expertise for large-scale bioprospecting to identify and collect a variety of marine organisms or genes of potential use. Bioscreening then selects out those with the most desirable characteristics. Sources include microorganisms, plant or animals, which may be harvested or cultured.
Modern molecular biology tools are available for learning about the basic processes by which marine organisms adapt to their environments, which are often extreme in nature and which may prove useful in industrial and medical processes.
As populations and human needs continue to increase in Latin America and the rest of the world, the pressures on natural resources will also continue to grow. If Latin America is to meet these growing needs by taking advantage of the bounty of the sea, while protecting its marine environment, and maintaining biodiversity, the region's research institutions, government and private sector will have an increasing number of opportunities to build on the promise of marine biotechnology and its related scientific and commercial community.
This brief article reviews key global trends in marine biotechnology and explores some of the research and commercialization advantages enjoyed by Latin America as a region. Challenges and opportunities are also pointed out along with descriptions of ongoing community efforts to mobilize interest in marine biotechnology education and commercialization.
Global organizational efforts and trends in marine biotechnology
At a July 2001 meeting of the Marine Biotechnology Feasibility Study Group of the European Science Foundation Marine Board, a group of experts was convened to review opportunities for the European Community for the coming years. Discussions in this group highlighted the following areas as target areas of interest for developing specific research objectives and information exchange in marine biotechnology: genomics and proteomics, bioinformatics, nanotechnology, bioprospecting, environmental biotechnology, aquiculture, cell culture, education and training.
Another key part of this exercise involved review of the global activities designed to share information and combine efforts on a regional basis. This review is partially described below.
Since 1989 there have been five International Marine Biotechnology Conferences (IMBC) (Tokyo '89, Baltimore '91, Tromso '94, Sorrento '97, and Townsville '00). The Japanese Society for Marine Biotechnology, the Foundation for Advancement of International Science, the International Scientific Committee for Biotechnology and the International Council of Scientific Unions organized the first IMBC. An International Organizing Committee and an International Scientific Advisory Board was formed which has planned the subsequent IMBC meetings. The first European meeting took place in 1992 in Montpellier. In 1998 and 1999 Marine Biotechnology meetings gathering European participants took place respectively in Willemshaven (Germany) and Noordwijkerhout (Netherlands). In August 1998 the first UK Marine Biotechnology Conference was held in Edinburgh, Scotland. Two new marine journals were established: Journal of Marine Biotechnology (Japan) and Molecular Marine Biology and Biotechnology (USA). These have recently merged to form Marine Biotechnology, an international journal on the molecular and cellular biology of marine life and its technology applications. This is the official journal of the regional organizations described below.
The Asian-Pacific Marine Biotechnology Society was founded in 1995 following the IMBC'94 meeting. This society initially encompassed Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Palau, Philippines and Thailand. Their regional conferences in Shimuzi, Japan and Phuket, Thailand have drawn some 400 participants from 15 countries. The European Society for Marine Biotechnology (ESMB) was formed in 1994 in TromsØ, Norway.
The Pan American Marine Biotechnology Association (PAMBA) was formally founded at a meeting in Halifax, Canada, in 1999 following organizational gatherings held in Italy and later in Cuba. PAMBA was created to promote marine biotechnology in the Americas as a promising route to achieving sustainable socio-economic benefits from marine resources. PAMBA is designed to facilitate personal and organizational interactions and information exchanges. It also intends to promote exchange of scientists, managers, faculty, and students among all organizations engaged in marine biotechnology activities in the Americas and encourage the development of commercial marine biotechnology. It plans to sponsor conferences and workshops on marine biotechnology and organize special advanced courses in marine biotechnology in order to contribute to improvements in the teaching of marine biotechnology.
Unique opportunities and challenges for Latin America
The extensiveness and diversity of Latin America's coastlines and marine resources together with its world-class science and technology community and current economic prosperity place the region's institutions in an ideal situation to take advantage of the growing opportunities in marine biotechnology. Chile, Mexico, Cuba and Brazil, for example, have already made major commitments in support of marine biotechnology research at institutions like the Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, the Universidad de Antofagasta, Center for Scientific Research and Higher Education of Ensenada (CICESE), the Biotechnology Institute in Havana and others.
These countries, along with others, are poised to respond to the globalization challenges with substantive contributions and regional leadership. Latin American research activities in marine biotechnology can draw upon an already extensive infrastructure and accumulated knowledge about marine ecosystems, populations and organisms. In countries like Chile where large-scale aquiculture is already a significant part of the economy, marine biotechnology applications offer an important avenue for knowledge-based, value-added economic activities designed to ensure safe and sustainable aquiculture and fisheries.
The European forum cited earlier pointed out that the main issues of concern for improving aquiculture production are species diversification, optimal feeds and feeding, health of cultured populations and resistance to diseases as well as minimal environmental impact. Investigations into the use of marine microorganisms as probiotics in aquiculture are resulting in improved fish health and production. New molecular biology techniques include development of molecular marker assisted selection, family and mass selection programs, finding new molecular markers to be used in parent and pedigree analyses, and use of triploids in hatchery. These approaches can be used to monitor genetic improvements using traditional breeding methods as well as to monitor and measure interactions between hatchery populations and wild populations.
As is the case in other regions of the world, Latin America is challenged to seek ways to enable marine biotechnology advances to be integrated with the traditional sectors of its economy and promote industrial involvement in the application of scientific research. With the emergence of the rapidly growing aquiculture industry in countries like Chile a number of modern and well-equipped aquiculture research stations have been established. These stations and their infrastructure can be important instruments to cultivate and study marine organisms for biotechnological purposes. The vast natural marine resources in the region invite creative efforts in bioprospecting and bioscreening for novel compounds; biosensors for the assessment of environmental quality and management of marine environments; genomics and proteomics of marine organisms; aquiculture and seaweed marine culture among other areas.
For this, it will be necessary to continue to nurture the region's technological and professional infrastructure. Similarly, continued networking among scientists and professionals within region as well as outside will provide significant stimulation and will serve to improve contacts between molecular biologists and traditional marine biologists and between marine biotechnologists and industry. Of equal importance will be the region's efforts continue to promote public understanding of the responsible and sustainable use of marine organisms.
Research opportunities for the northern part of Chile as unique source of biotechnology products
The Northern part of Chile is an extremely interesting source of biotechnology products due to its geographical uniqueness. The area has several kinds of extreme environments. Examples include salt lakes, geizers, highlands (6.000m), underground water basins, arid zones (dessert), high radiation, coastal zones affected by mining activities. These conditions are suitable for the screening of microorganisms highly adapted for each of these extreme habitats. Such microorganisms are attractive sources of enzymes, peptides or proteins, antimicrobial substances and other bioactive compounds. New industries as well as clean technology based on these products can bring about an important regional development and therefore, an important economic growth. Based on these regional opportunities, The Universidad de Antofagasta has made an important contribution to regional development by creating the Center of Biotechnology and Molecular Biology (CBBM). The aims of this center are to provide undertaken basic and applied research on biotechnology products. The participation of Chile though CBBM in an international network as PAMBA connect local research to a global approach promoting foreing investment and international trading.
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