An ocean of opportunity for marine biotechnology

Ljubljana, 13 December - The underwater world remains understudied even though, according to researcher Ana Rotter, it provides an "ocean of opportunity" for biotechnology and numerous other fields, from medicine and nutrition science to cosmetics and new materials. With the Ocean4Biotech project, Slovenia has a chance to become a leading country in this respect.

Ana Rotter, a biostatistician at the Marine Biological Station in Piran.
Photo: Anže Malovrh/STA

Ana Rotter, a biostatistician at the Marine Biological Station in Piran.
Photo: Anže Malovrh/STA

Ana Rotter, a biostatistician at the Marine Biological Station in Piran.
Photo: Anže Malovrh/STA

Environmental conditions in the sea are significantly different from those on land. Studying the biology of marine organisms, their ability to adapt to extreme temperatures, pressure and lack of light may help humans address numerous challenges.

While a huge multitude of species have been identified in the sea, researchers believe that many more remain to be found in the depths. For instance, only about one percent of marine microorganisms are known to science, and researchers want to discover more of them, compare them and study the compounds they produce in order to potentially use them in medicine, cosmetics, nutrition and materials.

COST action Ocean4Biotech

The potential of marine microorganisms will be studied as part of a European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) action called European transdisciplinary networking platform for marine biotechnology, or Ocean4Biotech, which is chaired by Ana Rotter, a Slovenian researcher at the Piran marine biology station of the National Institute of Biology and a microbiologist with a PhD in statistics.

Ocean4Biotech brings together experts in marine biotechnology, a science which according to Rotter is still in its infancy, especially in Slovenia. In addition to biologists and chemists, it features experts in business, law, ethics and economics who are active or want to be active in a field that is gaining in popularity.

Ocean of possibilities and opportunities

According to Rotter, the sea represents an "ocean of possibility and opportunity". Marine organisms produce a wide range of compounds with anti-bacterial, anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties, which opens up possibilities for medical application in cancer treatment, in nutrition for the development of new kinds of superfoods, in the pharmaceutical industry as an environment-friendly method of protection from UV radiation, or as a source of new materials which could replace plastic.

Rotter would like to see at least one product make it to market in the coming ten to twenty years, which would create new jobs in this field. She believes this would "bridge the typical gap created in the communication and cooperation between researchers, industry, the general public and legislators".

A great opportunity for Slovenia

Marine biotechnology, also called blue biotechnology, is a great opportunity for Slovenia. With an active approach and great desire for innovation, as well as strategic cooperation with researchers and small companies, the country could become a leader in the region, Rotter believes.

The Mediterranean Sea, despite being small compared to other seas, boasts great biodiversity. At the same time, small size is exactly what makes Slovenia interesting for other small countries, such as Malta, Cyprus, Portugal and Iceland, which have recognised the project as an opportunity for cooperation. "If small maritime countries join forces, we can do a lot in this field," says Rotter.

Networking and creating new projects core of the project

As Rotter explained, Ocean4Biotech is a special type of project, a COST network. Since the 1970s, the organisation has enabled researchers, industry and legislators to network, exchange talent and produce scientific articles in the most cutting-edge fields.

The project is therefore a good opportunity for researchers from around the world to get to know each other, to set up bases for work and future projects, and to select people they will cooperate with in the future. "After all, we work with people. There are many good researchers, and what is important is a personal relationship between us and our ability to cooperate," said Rotter.

The project currently involves 87 researchers from 29 European countries and one African country. Rotter expects that at least 20 researchers from five to ten countries will join it in the next year or two.

Communication of science an opportunity and an obligation

The project puts special emphasis on communication with the public, which Rotter believes every researcher should learn. She believes that raising awareness in the public and in the media is both an opportunity and an obligation for scientists. "We have the responsibility to inform the public about what we do, to answer questions in the flood of information which may or may not be correct, and to shift attention in the right direction in order to prevent conflict and incorrect interpretations."

Rotter hopes that the young generation of scientists will understand that it is impossible to be a scientist without communication.

Using jellyfish to reduce bioplastics in the sea

Rotter also participates in GoJelly, a project which focuses on organisms larger than microorganisms - jellyfish. The project tries to use the mucus or slime excreted by jellyfish to make biofilters which would pick up bioplastics in the sea. Jellyfish-related products to be used as fertilisers in agriculture and as ingredients in the cosmetic industry are also being considered.

The role of researchers from the National Institute of Biology in the project is studying mucus in order to understand its chemical and physical properties and to develop methods to examine the behaviour of mucus as it is stored, frozen or thawed, since it is important that the raw material for products is always at disposal.

Rotter actively warning about discrimination in science

In addition to being active in research projects related to the sea and marine biotechnology, Rotter is a vocal advocate of the rights of employees in science, and has been highlighting the precariousness and unpredictable future of young scientists, as well as discrimination in science. According to her, this is a multi-layered problem.

It is manifested as discrimination against ambitious women, age discrimination or geographical discrimination, and discrimination in clinical studies, such as vehicle collision testing or clinical studies of medications for osteoporosis, where sex as an important variable is frequently not considered at all.

Rotter is trying to address all these challenges as part of the project CHANGE - CHAlleNging Gender (In)Equality in science and research. Implemented in various European countries, it seeks to re-define internal rules to enable unbiased employment, promotion and preservation of the best staff, regardless of gender.

"What is important is that we would like to establish an informal network of researchers so that we help each other and know how to advise each other when facing the numerous obstacles scientists encounter in their work," says Rotter.