It’s an unfortunate reality that pure science – even if it has the potential of solving problems or creating opportunities – doesn’t always get the funding it needs. Universities are operating on tight budgets and federal grant support is harder to secure, which means that some promising lines of study are in jeopardy. But fortunately for our marine science work at UNC-Wilmington, creation of the MARBIONC public-private partnership allows us to support aspects of our work by marketing unique biological materials to other researchers using a program income or service justification.
One result, which has just gone “public” this year, is called the Algal Resources Collection (ARC). This allows scientists elsewhere to obtain biological materials they want to study, and allows us to help sustain our own work.
My faculty colleague Carmelo Tomas, Ph.D., studies marine algae. Over the years, he has built a unique collection of specimens, collected from all over the world and kept alive in cultures, that share some important characteristics. “These microscopic marine organisms are very potent,” he explained, “in that they produce compounds with a great impact on marine life, and even on humans.” For example, some of the species in this collection produce the so-called “red tide” that can kill commercially valuable fish. Others, when eaten by oysters, can make those shellfish toxic to humans.
The many dozens of species in this collection were chosen, Tomas said, because of the “novel and important types of chemical compounds they produce, minute amounts of which can cause a great deal of damage.”
As scientists, we want to know more about these compounds and about the organisms that produce them. Not just to avoid harm to fisheries or to public health, but also to discover ways they could enhance health in the form of new medical treatments. As an analogy to the tremendous diversity of life found in tropical rain forests, Tomas said, the world’s oceans and waterways are full of “natural chemical facts of nature that have not been studied very carefully.” The living organisms, their DNA, and the unique chemicals they create, are all interesting and valuable to researchers at universities and in the pharmaceutical industry. “We have research collaborators from around the world,” Tomas said, “who are requesting specimens from his collection.”
The ARC’s website allows qualified scientists to place orders for a wide range of products and services that the collection includes. “Qualified,” in this context, means “They can certify they know how to handle these materials safely,” Tomas explained, precisely because they are so biologically potent and sometimes hazardous.
Depending on the requesters’ needs and their laboratories’ capabilities, they may need just a “starter culture” of a particular species. Or we can send them a “concentrated pellet” that contains millions of single-cell algae, ready to work on. Some researchers need just “fractions,” such as a particular compound extracted from the live organism, or DNA samples. We can provide lab services, too. Those include DNA sequencing of the species in our collection.
It’s worth emphasizing that the ARC’s staff includes specialists at identifying these organisms, who can do painstaking work with microscopes and chemical analyses, in addition to DNA analysis, needed to distinguish one species from another. “There are fewer and fewer people in the world qualified to identify these species,” Tomas said, and fortunately we have a number of them right here in our labs. Their skills can be shared with others through ARC.
We believe the ARC will have multiple appeals to a wide range of researchers. Those include neurophysiologists, interested in how various toxins affect nerves and the brain; pharmaceutical development labs; and fisheries’ biologists who are concerned about the safety of seafood. What our algae specimens won’t be so helpful for are high-volume uses like feeding oysters in aquaculture tanks or producing biofuels. “We’re specializing in high-value products,” Tomas said, the sorts of materials available in small amounts and returning big dollars.
We expect to have everything in place by the end of this summer to be able to accept online orders. “We aim to advertise this in a big way,” Tomas said, promoting ARC to researchers at major scientific conferences that members of our faculty will be attending this fall. We will also be collaborating with other collections of this kind, exchanging samples and web links.
That gets me to my earlier point about problems with financial support for science. As Tomas points out, “Major culture collections have disappeared around the world” because they have lost funding from the universities that once supported them. He mentioned two formerly important collections, in Copenhagen, Denmark and in Plymouth, England that are now essentially out of business.
To keep that from happening with our collection, we are actively seeking to turn it into not just a scientific resource, but a revenue source. That is why the MARBIONC organization is essential, because it allows us to conduct commercial work that would not be possible for the university on its own.
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