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Business Growth
Oct 15, 2015

Growing Marine Microbes In Search Of New Compounds

Sponsored Content provided by Daniel G. Baden - Executive Principal, Marine Biotechnology in North Carolina (MARBIONC)

Nature is a laboratory that has been creating chemical compounds for billions of years. Human scientists are working hard to discover some of those chemicals, and to figure out how they might be useful for us. That is an important aspect of the work going on right now at UNCW’s CREST Research Park.
Along with my faculty colleagues Jeffrey Wright, Ph.D., and Carmelo Tomas, Ph.D., I am part of a project to isolate interesting and potentially valuable compounds from marine microorganisms. Wright and I are the chemists, and I will say more about that side of the project in a future article. But our work depends on what Tomas and his biology team are doing to culture some 750 different strains of algae and related organisms found in oceans all over the world.
In some ways what we’re doing is similar to how drug companies have sent explorers to tropical rainforests. Their mission is to collect exotic plants, then work them over to find chemicals that might become pharmaceuticals. Roughly half of the drugs in use now derive from natural sources. But so far, almost all of them have come from land-based life forms. We are just beginning a parallel quest to identify valuable compounds from sea life.
What we do is somewhat different from those rainforest researchers. We don’t remove significant amounts of sometimes rare species from their environments. Our collection practices are designed to be sustainable. Also, instead of working with finite specimens – a few leaves, roots or samples of bark – Tomas’ team must grow large volumes of tiny, single-cell microalgae, and keep those cultures alive, so we can get adequate amounts to work with.
Our laboratory gets water samples from such places as Trinidad and Tobago, Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific, and the Virgin Islands, sometimes containing rare or entirely new species. “We’re going to the environment and collecting these organisms in a sustainable way,” Tomas said. Back in the lab, he and his associates grow them in large quantities and produce materials the chemists can use; in his words, “do their magic with.”
Unlike such microscopic life forms as bacteria and viruses, the marine algae can’t be stored away in freezers and revived whenever they are needed. “These organisms don’t work that way,” Tomas explained. They have to be handled with care, and require ongoing processes to maintain.
Those processes account for much of the space in our laboratories. This mass culturing requires large volumes of water – hundreds of liters – plus nutrients, controlled temperatures and plenty of light. “These are photosynthetic organisms,” Tomas said, which like green plants rely on sunlight to produce their own food. The biologists on his team tend their cultures in large glass “carboys,” which are big jugs similar to those used by home brewers or winemakers, in five large walk-in “growth chambers.”
When a culture is mature, it’s readied for further investigation in our support facility. A two-laboratory suite features filtered air, to ensure that airborne organisms don’t contaminate our specimens. Once the live organisms have been harvested, the biologists turn their material over to the chemists. As Tomas explained that next stage, “they tear it apart,” looking for the chemical compounds it may contain.
In a fruitful example of the partnerships that CREST Research Park is designed to encourage, we are collaborating with IKA-Works, Inc., the Wilmington-based U.S. division of a German company. IKA is a manufacturer of laboratory equipment. It is developing a more efficient system for marine-life cultures. This “photobioreactor” works something like a fermenter. It packs the work that can normally require up to a full room into a small footprint. By growing these materials in highly controlled conditions, in an optimal environment for rapid reproduction, we are seeing a hundred-fold increase in yield. That ultimately should save significant amounts of both time and money.
IKA has funded a fellowship that supports a full-time researcher to test and improve the photobioreactor. This university-industry partnership not only involves development and improvement of novel scientific equipment but helps train a young scientist for a career in biotechnology. It’s a win for commerce and a win for science.
UNCW CREST Research Park is a front-runner in marine biotech research and development. Researchers are exploring the potential of natural products derived from the sea to treat or cure human diseases and meet other important needs.
Discover why rising biotechnology and life sciences groups from all over the country are moving to UNCW CREST Research Park. UNCW CREST Research Park offers top-notch commercial laboratories available for lease at affordable rates, flexible terms, and innovative product development opportunities that are unmatched by any other park. Connect with CREST at [email protected] today.

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