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Posted: Sep 12, 2013

Marine biotechnology opens new channels to innovative bioproducts for human health

(Nanowerk News) We know little about why or how marine organisms like sponges, produce chemical substances, although many of them can be used for human wellbeing including drugs to treat cancer and manage pain. On September 12th in her inaugural address upon taking up the post of Special Professor of Marine Biotechnology at Wageningen University Prof. Dr Shirley Pomponi will present how marine animals use a broad range of fine chemicals to defend themselves against infection, overgrowing and other threats. Her effort is to identify these chemicals, to let them be produced in a sustainable way and to develop innovative bioproducts for human health.
In her inaugural lecture, ‘Innovative Approaches to Bioproduct Discovery & Development’ on 12 September, Prof. Pomponi focusses on the potentials of marine-derived chemicals. The tropical shallow sea bottom is rich on marine species. “This also means that there is a high chemical diversity. More than 30,000 novel, marine-derived chemicals have been discovered in the past four decades, mostly from sponges,” she says, “Yet we know little about why or how the chemicals are produced. And what is their role in nature?”
Many of these marine organisms - sponges, sea cucumbers, sea anemones to mention a few - are attached to the bottom as adults. To communicate with each other they have evolved sophisticated chemical systems. Also they bring chemical based strategies into action to defend themselves against predators, to prevent other organisms from growing over them, and to prevent infection from disease-causing microbes that they filter out of the water. In short, these marine animals have developed a whole range of chemical possibilities to communicate and to resist the opponent successfully.
These same chemicals have pharmaceutical potential because they interact with proteins that have been conserved throughout evolutionary history and that are involved in human disease processes, for example, cell division and cell death, immune and inflammatory responses, and calcium and sodium regulation. An understanding of the role of the compounds in nature could lead to the identification of novel disease targets for drug development, Prof. Pomponi argues.
In her inauguration lecture Prof. Pomponi will present case studies that describe how the chemicals are used by the sponges, snails, and algae that produce them, and how these same chemicals may be used to develop drugs to treat psychiatric disorders, respiratory illnesses, cardiovascular disease, and osteoporosis. She will also present options for sustainable biological production of the chemicals.
The ultimate goal of the marine sponge biotechnology program at Wageningen UR is to better understand how and why these chemicals are produced, to identify potential new applications for drugs and other bioproducts, and to develop methods for sustainable production of sponge-derived products for human health applications.
Prof. Shirley Pomponi (1949) is Professor and Director of the Cooperative Institute for Ocean Exploration, Research, and Technology at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute of the Florida Atlantic University in Fort Pierce (US). Her chair at Wageningen University will operate as part of the Bioprocess Engineering Group, and will receive funding from Florida Atlantic University.
Source: Wageningen University and Research Centre
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