Blue Biotechnology in the Baltic Sea Region

The Baltic Blue Biotechnology Alliance is a flagship project of the SUBMARINER Network. The Alliance was initially funded by Interreg BSR (2016-2019) with an extension granted until 2021 to consolidate the network. As such, it features as the dedicated Blue Biotechnology Working Group of the SUBMARINER Network. This webpage presents the key facts, reports, networks and other relevant information on biotechnology in the Baltic Sea. 

About Blue Biotechnology

Biotechnology is defined as the application of science and technology to living organisms, as well as parts, products and models thereof, to alter living or non-living materials for the production of knowledge, goods and services. Blue Biotechnology encompasses the application of biotechnology tools on marine resources. Blue biotechnology is a sector that has great potential as Europe moves towards a bio-based economy. Blue Biotechnology has considerable potential to help address global challenges in population health, food security and industrial and environmental sustainability as well as protecting and preserving marine resources for future generations. The exploitation of marine micro – and macro-organisms is a promising tool to find solutions to these challenges through provision of products for the pharmaceutical industry, the medical field, human diet, animal feed, the cosmetics and wellness sectors, bioremediation and other purposes stands to reason that given the considerable species diversity of these waters, the potential for finding compounds of interest for application development is also significant. For example, it has been shown that some bacteria associated with macro-organisms  from the Baltic Sea such as the alga accharina latissima,  the sponge Halichondria panicea  and several bryozoan species exhibit a great potential for the production of antimicrobial  compounds. A few other examples are known of Baltic Sea microbial strains that produce bioactive compounds. 

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Cosmetics, Health Care and Wellness Products 

In cosmetics, surfactants („surface active agents“) are compounds that lower the surface tension of a liquid or that between a liquid and a solid and are thus used as cleansers, detergents, solubilisers, foaming agents and emulsifiers. Surfactants can be found in almost all kinds of products based on powders, liquids, lotions, creams, gels and sprays. In tune with current ecological concerns, chemical surfactants are giving way to biologically produced surfactants such as phospholipids, lipopeptides and glycolipids originating from marine organisms. In contrast to conventional surfactants, bio-surfactants are completely biodegradable and hence environment-friendly. Furthermore, they are less toxic and more stable over a wide range of temperatures and pH. Alone in 2006, 255 patents related to bio-emulsifiers and bio-surfactants were issued (33 % in the petroleum industry, 15 % in the cosmetics industry, 12 % in medicine and 11 % in bioremediation). The exploitation of these patents could enhance the output of marine products containing surface active compounds.

Food and Feed Products 

Numerous food supplements can be traced back to compounds of marine origin. Microalgae, for example, are commonly used as a food supplement, with some of the most valuable products being polyunsaturated fatty acids (omega-3 fatty acids) and antioxidants (e.g. β-carotenoid). From the aquaculture perspective, there is a great challenge in providing new cheaper feed products, as the feed constitutes about 50 % of the cost drivers (for fish). New healthy feed products are also necessary to prevent diseases and to enhance the quality of the cultivated organisms. Animal proteins should be replaced by plant products, such as those from algal origin. Cultured microalgae are already used as a feed additive in mollusk and shrimp aquaculture54 as well as in feed for poultry, pigs and some pets. The microalgae pigment astaxanthin is an especially valuable feed additive in salmon farming, giving the pink colour of the fish meat. 

Pharmaceutical industry 

As the global incidence of infectious diseases, cancer, heart diseases, asthma, Alzheimer`s disease and diabetes continue to increase and simultaneously the number of antibiotic-resistant pathogens also grows, the need for development of new drugs has become ever more important, also with respect to an increase of the elderly population. Generally, natural products play an important role in the development of drugs, with 63 % of new drugs classified as naturally derived. Marine compounds show remarkably high hit rates in the screening for drugs. More than 20,000  marine active compounds have been found until now with 80 % showing anticancer activity.

Anti-fouling Systems 

Surfaces in the marine environment are rapidly colonised by microorganisms such as bacteria, a process which is then followed by colonisation by macroorganisms such as barnacles. This usually poses a problem for ships when a biofilm grows on the bottom, resulting in reduced cruising speed, high fuel consumption and thus increased CO 2 emissions. 62 Anti-fouling coatings are thus used containing chemical substances that prevent the formation of biofilms. Because these coatings often have toxic effects, legal regulations such as the International Convention on the Control of Harmful Anti-Fouling Systems on Ships (AFS Convention) – adopted in 2001 by the International Maritime Organisation – are in place to promote restriction or even ban of toxic compounds such as tributyltin (TBT) used for anti-fouling.

Biomaterials 

Though this is still a very new field, over the past decade the medical, pharmaceutical and biotechnological industries have directed increasing attention towards biomaterials such as biopolymers of marine origin. Microbial biopolymers are polysaccharides, chitins or collagens, which have numerous applications ranging from bioplastics (such as polyhydroxyalkanoate, also known as PHA, which is synthesized by various marine bacteria) to pharmaceutical and medical polymers for sealing wounds, bio-adhesives, dental biomaterials, tissue regeneration and 3D tissue culture scaffolds. In comparison to conventional polymers, biopolymers have the advantage of being biodegradable, less toxic and based on renewable resources. Marine biopolymers may have a major future market potential but are currently still in development stage.

Enzymes for Industrial Processes 

In the frame of the Europe 2020 Strategy the European Commission calls for “Innovating for Sustainable Growth: A Bioeconomy for Europe” which addresses the sustainable use of renewable resources for industrial purposes in 2012. It is also already a trend and one which is expected continue growing, to replace more and more chemical products and processes with biologically-based ones, as they are more environmentally friendly and thus have higher acceptance among consumers. For example, cold adapted enzymes, those synthesised by organisms that thrive in cold environments, are now being used to improve industrial processes as they allow for the reduction of the water temperature and thus the energy required for a process. Currently, 40 % of the total sale of enzymes applies to proteases, lipases, amylases and cellulases used as additives in detergents in order to reduce the temperature required for washing.  

Bioremediation of Marine Ecosystems 

This relatively novel application involves the use of oil-degrading bacteria to improve water quality. Oilis a complex mixture of hundreds of different compounds generated from dead biomass over millions of years. In parallel, certain microorganisms, some of which are a common part of the marine microbial community in the Baltic Sea, have developed special enzyme systems to be able to use some of the oil components as substrate. Research is therefore going into the identification of microorganisms that might be able to mitigate the negative effects of accidental oil contamination from ship accidents or leakage of oil platforms. So far, no microbes are known that are able to degrade the whole spectrum of oil components. To estimate the amount of active oil-degrading species as well as the cocktails of enzymes they produce for these purposes will require both molecular-ecological and metagenomic approaches. But the starting point is an encouraging one, as investigation of the microbial diversity in Baltic Sea sediments has already revealed the presence of microbial strains possibly involved.

  • Cosmetics, Health Care and Wellness Products 

    In cosmetics, surfactants („surface active agents“) are compounds that lower the surface tension of a liquid or that between a liquid and a solid and are thus used as cleansers, detergents, solubilisers, foaming agents and emulsifiers. Surfactants can be found in almost all kinds of products based on powders, liquids, lotions, creams, gels and sprays. In tune with current ecological concerns, chemical surfactants are giving way to biologically produced surfactants such as phospholipids, lipopeptides and glycolipids originating from marine organisms. In contrast to conventional surfactants, bio-surfactants are completely biodegradable and hence environment-friendly. Furthermore, they are less toxic and more stable over a wide range of temperatures and pH. Alone in 2006, 255 patents related to bio-emulsifiers and bio-surfactants were issued (33 % in the petroleum industry, 15 % in the cosmetics industry, 12 % in medicine and 11 % in bioremediation). The exploitation of these patents could enhance the output of marine products containing surface active compounds.

  • Food and Feed Products 

    Numerous food supplements can be traced back to compounds of marine origin. Microalgae, for example, are commonly used as a food supplement, with some of the most valuable products being polyunsaturated fatty acids (omega-3 fatty acids) and antioxidants (e.g. β-carotenoid). From the aquaculture perspective, there is a great challenge in providing new cheaper feed products, as the feed constitutes about 50 % of the cost drivers (for fish). New healthy feed products are also necessary to prevent diseases and to enhance the quality of the cultivated organisms. Animal proteins should be replaced by plant products, such as those from algal origin. Cultured microalgae are already used as a feed additive in mollusk and shrimp aquaculture54 as well as in feed for poultry, pigs and some pets. The microalgae pigment astaxanthin is an especially valuable feed additive in salmon farming, giving the pink colour of the fish meat. 

  • Pharmaceutical industry 

    As the global incidence of infectious diseases, cancer, heart diseases, asthma, Alzheimer`s disease and diabetes continue to increase and simultaneously the number of antibiotic-resistant pathogens also grows, the need for development of new drugs has become ever more important, also with respect to an increase of the elderly population. Generally, natural products play an important role in the development of drugs, with 63 % of new drugs classified as naturally derived. Marine compounds show remarkably high hit rates in the screening for drugs. More than 20,000  marine active compounds have been found until now with 80 % showing anticancer activity.

  • Anti-fouling Systems 

    Surfaces in the marine environment are rapidly colonised by microorganisms such as bacteria, a process which is then followed by colonisation by macroorganisms such as barnacles. This usually poses a problem for ships when a biofilm grows on the bottom, resulting in reduced cruising speed, high fuel consumption and thus increased CO 2 emissions. 62 Anti-fouling coatings are thus used containing chemical substances that prevent the formation of biofilms. Because these coatings often have toxic effects, legal regulations such as the International Convention on the Control of Harmful Anti-Fouling Systems on Ships (AFS Convention) – adopted in 2001 by the International Maritime Organisation – are in place to promote restriction or even ban of toxic compounds such as tributyltin (TBT) used for anti-fouling.

  • Biomaterials 

    Though this is still a very new field, over the past decade the medical, pharmaceutical and biotechnological industries have directed increasing attention towards biomaterials such as biopolymers of marine origin. Microbial biopolymers are polysaccharides, chitins or collagens, which have numerous applications ranging from bioplastics (such as polyhydroxyalkanoate, also known as PHA, which is synthesized by various marine bacteria) to pharmaceutical and medical polymers for sealing wounds, bio-adhesives, dental biomaterials, tissue regeneration and 3D tissue culture scaffolds. In comparison to conventional polymers, biopolymers have the advantage of being biodegradable, less toxic and based on renewable resources. Marine biopolymers may have a major future market potential but are currently still in development stage.

    Enzymes for Industrial Processes 

    In the frame of the Europe 2020 Strategy the European Commission calls for “Innovating for Sustainable Growth: A Bioeconomy for Europe” which addresses the sustainable use of renewable resources for industrial purposes in 2012. It is also already a trend and one which is expected continue growing, to replace more and more chemical products and processes with biologically-based ones, as they are more environmentally friendly and thus have higher acceptance among consumers. For example, cold adapted enzymes, those synthesised by organisms that thrive in cold environments, are now being used to improve industrial processes as they allow for the reduction of the water temperature and thus the energy required for a process. Currently, 40 % of the total sale of enzymes applies to proteases, lipases, amylases and cellulases used as additives in detergents in order to reduce the temperature required for washing.  

  • Bioremediation of Marine Ecosystems 

    This relatively novel application involves the use of oil-degrading bacteria to improve water quality. Oilis a complex mixture of hundreds of different compounds generated from dead biomass over millions of years. In parallel, certain microorganisms, some of which are a common part of the marine microbial community in the Baltic Sea, have developed special enzyme systems to be able to use some of the oil components as substrate. Research is therefore going into the identification of microorganisms that might be able to mitigate the negative effects of accidental oil contamination from ship accidents or leakage of oil platforms. So far, no microbes are known that are able to degrade the whole spectrum of oil components. To estimate the amount of active oil-degrading species as well as the cocktails of enzymes they produce for these purposes will require both molecular-ecological and metagenomic approaches. But the starting point is an encouraging one, as investigation of the microbial diversity in Baltic Sea sediments has already revealed the presence of microbial strains possibly involved.

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